Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private investigator in California, the year is 1970, and he's about to get a case that could be a big break - personally. His ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who he still has feelings for even though she left him, has shown up at his home by the beach to tell him she has a case he will be ideal for. He's immediately interested because doing her a favour would get him back in her good books, that is until he notices how uncharacteristically well-groomed and upset she looks, there's something very wrong and when she expands on her desire to get Doc to investigate her current boyfriend, he grows very concerned. This man is the property millionaire Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), and he has disappeared...
Feature films of Thomas Pynchon novels are few and far between, and Paul Thomas Anderson's efforts were the first to truly adapt a novel of his faithfully, though Pynchon's sensibilities had perhaps filtered into the consciousness of a fair few cult moviemakers, this one being the most obvious. Another pair were the Coen Brothers, who saw their Raymond Chandler-esque The Big Lebowski being compared to Inherent Vice (the movie), since they both shared a convoluted plot difficult to grasp on first viewing, had a bizarre sense of humour in a counterculture, even stoner fashion (Anderson claimed Airplane! as an influence), and that milieu of a conflicted America seen through a drug-induced haze was common to them more or less equally.
What Lebowski didn't have was its serious side, that point when you're never going to make sense of the world in that haze of marijuana smoke, not to mention the harder stuff you may be drawn to: Doc is quite proud of the fact he's one of the few dope smokers who did not end up on heroin, not that he's any kind of puritan or evangelist. Yet the dread that the world (immediately post-Manson Family in this case) is so complex, the forces orchestrating it so powerful and difficult to understand, was very present here, leaving us in no doubt that the most prevalent method of coping with the walls of cruel reality closing in was to self-medicate, whether that be legally with alcohol or tobacco, or illegally with all that other stuff. This places Doc in a interesting situation, where he has a foot in both camps.
He could either lose himself in his own selfish pleasures, adrift in his own frazzled mind, or make an effort, say he's not giving in and no matter how complicated this is getting he will work it all out, godammit. Anderson, sticking close to the source, made certain that was not going to be any easier the further he investigated, with every ten minutes throwing up a new character or three to negotiate, the conspiracy a running joke in itself in that whenever Doc thinks he has a handle on what is really going on, something else pops up to let him know how little progress he has made. Ostensibly this was a quest to trace Wolfmann, but how optimistic that appeared at the beginning and how futile it appeared when he actually does meet him halfway through the movie: Doc might as well be banging his head up against a brick wall, and there are a number of bad 'uns who would be happy to help with that.
With all that consciousness-expanding, possibilities-shrinking plotting unfolding, this could have a been a very sober experience indeed, and there were points to be made about how fear had brought us to a society of suspicion, all the more malleable by the powers that be to keep us in our place as we toe the line as they want, or simply give up trying to make a positive difference and mindlessly lose ourselves in leisure. However, there were some extremely funny bits and pieces here that made the bitter pill go down that much easier, from little items like Doc bumped to the ground by a cop as he tries to enter a police station to more expansive absurdity with Martin Short as a crazed dentist who may or may not be behind the menacing machinations, all of which contributed to the chaos of reality victims and mindbending japes.
Also as with Lebowski, a brace of keenly acted caricatures and freaks and the apparently sensible (but not really) punctuated each scene with memorable character bits in support to Phoenix's sterling performance. He is most sympathetic if only by default, since we are as lost in this morass of conspiracies as he is, and with him to guide us there's a strange comfort in having your worst fears confirmed when you accept things really are as intractably baffling as you suspect once you try to piece together the jigsaw of life. Josh Brolin as the bullheaded cop trying to pin at least one of the crimes on Doc was superb, funny and later on offered a tragic side which could sum up the winding tone to Inherent Vice; other notables included Benicio Del Toro as a lawyer and Owen Wilson going deep undercover. As a product of a trickster sensibility, in its final stages this became weirdly moving, suggesting that even by 1970 things were too far gone for there to be any happily ever afters; the laughter you heard was laughter in the dark as paranoia and escapism became linked currency. Music by Jonny Greenwood.