Inherent Vice ★★★★★

A dread-filled, ever-present, menacing nostalgia permeates Paul Thomas Anderson’s L.A. crusin’ 1970s-set groovin’ detective meandering stoner-noir Inherent Vice. In contrast to its sinister undertones and fogged atmosphere, and despite its mystery-upon-mystery plot raveling (and raveling), or its bitter melancholy, Inherent Vice is fundamentally a comedic film. Anderson weaves a hazy cavalcade of absurd yet realized characters dispensing mumbled, cryptic macguffins that act as propulsive plot mechanisms for hippie-P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix sporting super shaggy sideburns) to amble after, joint in hand: check, unreliable state of mind: check. Encounters and confrontations with friend and foe, acquaintance and stranger, lead to a vast assortment of facial contortions: perplexed confusion, uncomprehending twitches and raised eyebrows, tear-glazed eyes – ranging from mild to hysterical – exposing discomfort, repulsion, empathy, apathy, violence and longing. Anderson’s film, honest to its source material (Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel), is both a longing remembrance as well as a relentless indictment of an era bypassed: youth promised and lost, idealism corrupted by man’s ancient corrosive vices, the victory of the “square” conservative establishment, the stamping of authority, the dissolution of even the most fringe notions of free love, peace and understanding; all faded and fading, gone.

So Doc’s ex-old lady Shasta Fey shows up like a vulnerable dream one night speaking in cryptic rhythms about extortion schemes and kidnapping, a path which leads down an intercutting series of mumbled whisperings about a mythically mysterious entity known as “The Golden Fang,” involved in drug smuggling, both-side playing snitches, drug rehabilitation, dentistry syndicates, prostitution, white-supremacist motorcycle gangs and police corruption. Amongst the delicious assortment of characters revolving around Doc are his lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), ex heroin-junkie sax player turned double-undercover informant Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), put-together confidant and booty-call Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) and, most importantly, Doc’s long-time foil (and brother’s keeper), Lieutenant Detective Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin who gives a revelatory dead-pan performance), described as a walking civil rights violation sporting a flattop crew-cut of “Flintstone proportions” who also has a curious predilection for devouring (and gagging on) chocolate-covered frozen bananas.

This is an easily misunderstood film if one is preoccupied with keeping up with the plot, because it is not about the plot so much as the function of the plot to serve as situational comedy. Doc’s unrelenting myriad of encounters are replete with hysterical visual and physical gags: Doc’s useless notes (“paranoia alert,” “not hallucinating,” “something Spanish”), Bigfoot spelling out “fucking” F-U-C-K-I-N-G-E, Doc’s reaction (AHHHH!) to a photo of “heroin baby,” Bigfoot’s kid playing bartender and pouring another glass of whiskey for his on-the-phone-dead-eyed father before bedtime, Shasta sexually cooing “what would Charlie do?” (in reference to the infamous Manson) to break down Doc’s hang-ups, a waitress at a seafood restaurant telling Doc and Sauncho they’re “gonna wanna get good and fucked up before this meal,” cocaine-crazy horn-dog dentists waddling with their pants around their ankles, Doc and co. pulled over on the highway for a “cult” violation (groups of three or more, long hair, references to the book of revelation, etc.,), a quintessentially Zuckeresque moment when Doc is knocked on the head and limply struggles on the way down, the way Doc picks up a ringing phone and doesn’t say anything (caller: hello? Doc: hello.), Hope Carlingen’s meet-squalid (as opposed to meet-cute) shit-and-puke heroin love story, the way Doc is always smoking Bigfoot is always chomping and chewing, the revelation of trailing camouflaged tactical police units in the desert, the FBI picking their noses during an interrogation, or the two-parent led two-kid family drug hand-off . Phoenix, who is practically in every frame of the film, hilariously accentuates – through subtle, nuanced and extremely minimalist facial movements – themes of confusion, paranoia, disgust, empathy, solitude and resentment.

But Inherent Vice is most importantly about the dissolve of time, the thawing of an epoch-defining moment that promised decency, care, less judgment and less stress, freedom for all, a place for all, opportunity for all, the pursuit of happiness however defined, equality and choice – diluted in a “voiding sea of time,” a skewing of morals and ethics to build up a “glass house” of class control, power and riches through violence and manipulation. The 60s was a movement to reclaim music, resist power, an “epic of everyday lovin’ bein’ freakin’” that succumbed to the dark forces and “ancient powers of greed and fear.” Go away, look away, blink for a moment and you miss it: any day now and “the whole damn turf is gone,” the gentrification of the lower economic rung, the marginalization of racial minorities, replaced by “white anglo owners” lining the streets. A world in which one loses “all claim to respect” when the first rent is paid. And this failure – of ideas, of a movement, of an ethos – this dilution of potential and hope is saddening, but at the same time, infuriating. Something was smashed, fragmented, resorted, reassembled: everyone told where to be and how to be and who to be.

And nobody noticed. The smoke of innocent optimism added an extra-layer of fog to the hazy entrenchment of established systems and prejudices of the new world order. You wake up one day and the past is gone, failed. Lessons learnt forgotten; all that remains are the loses and losers. The present looking like it promised it never would. Status quo maintained by ruthlessness and violence that betrays and perverts the conversational meaning of “far out” and “psychedelic,” like a hypocritical parent. A world where the fear of communism was so ideologically hysterical that it could only be rationalized into the polar extremes of freedom or fascism.

Adrift in this grimy miasma, what is one to do but forget the past, abscond nostalgia, watch each other glide away into different fates: “Does it ever end? Of course it does. It did.” And always will.