Paul Thomas Anderson probably wouldn't take kindly to being called a period filmmaker. And it's true that one of our finest pulse-takers of the American predicament is so much more than that. Anderson's movies track warped obsessives who come to define the particular times and places from which they get the tarnished American Dreams they pursue.
But he is period-perfect, in part because he knows the terrain. In the fabulous Boogie Nights, set in the booming 1970s porn-film industry in the San Fernando Valley where he grew up, Anderson captured the feel of a Southern California blessedly devoid of the usual Rodeo Drive shoppers or psychics hawking horoscopes on the Venice boardwalk. For him, noir visits nobodies who look like Adam Sandler or William H. Macy in sunny suburbs of Los Angeles County. Or, as in his new comedy, at the beach in the early 1970s, in the strange interregnum between the hippie moment and the "me" decade.
Inherent Vice unfolds in a period so mangled and maligned by Monday-morning cultural quarterbacking, it may never emerge from self-parody. It needs an interpretive revisit from Anderson. But where Boogie Nights was an exuberant homage to the loony vitality of a community of hacks convinced they were making art, Inherent Vice addresses a time that vitality forgot. Based on a 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, the action — an endless round of one step forward, two steps back, and wilting in place — rambles along in one of the countless beach towns that spread along the coast of Los Angeles. Such places, Manhattan or Redondo or Huntington Beach, became a haven for a backwash of refugees from a counterculture that promised freedom and creativity, then collapsed into apathy, disillusion and paranoia.
Spinning his wheels in this weird vacuum, we find private investigator and round-the-clock stoner Doc Sportello, who's not a big stretch for Joaquin Phoenix, a vision in mutton-chop whiskers and unfortunate hair. In his vacant fashion, Doc is looking for his vanished ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston, wistful and full of seductive cunning), who came to him for help after getting mixed up with a shady real estate developer (Eric Roberts).
Following her trail, Doc tangles with a huge cast of strange bedfellows played by big movie stars in funny garb. Ideology has imploded. Black nationalists keep murky company with suited-up FBI agents, who may or may not be in cahoots with the police, represented ("after a long day of civil rights violations") by a very funny Josh Brolin in a sensationally horrid buzz cut. There will be heroin, for sure. There may or may not be a cartel called Golden Fang. Beyond that, is someone out to get Doc or is it all in his addled head, suspended between a permanent high, grief for lost love, and the billowing paranoia he shares with everyone he meets?
Anderson gets so much contextually right here: The dreadful threads in which orange prevails, the red vinyl couches and mauve rug wallpaper; the bizarre, made-up names like Japonica, Sortilege, Shasta; the Ouija boards, the quacks and "spiritual coaches" fleecing customers with nothing left to prop them up but the tattered remnants of Eastern religions. Jonny Greenwood's score, along with a soundtrack heavy with Neil Young, match the mood of low-key confusion punctuated with despair.
That may be the problem. I love Anderson's ambition, but it is awfully hard to make a movie about a culture adrift that doesn't make its audience feel the same. Inherent Vice runs a punishing 148 minutes, not enough of which are funny or sad enough to hold us. The action bends this way and that; there are far too many reaction shots of Doc staring out of his undeniably beautiful violet eyes or pulling on a toke.
Anderson tries to pull together the rambling dialogue and looping plot with a voice-over by Doc's assistant (Joanna Newsom). But not every American tale has to approach epic, and as hard as it must have been to live through Doc's nebulous moment, seeing it through from inside his head sometimes feels like forever.