Seconds after the last Saturday night showing of “Inherent Vice,” a 70-year-old man sporting a frayed ponytail and what looked like a knitted Hawaiian poncho stared into the trashcan. Moviegoers dropped empty cartons of popcorn inside. They walked by. The old man gaped, seemingly mesmerized by its butter-smeared bowels. In a crowded Michigan multiplex populated mostly by youngish college students, mostly lamenting how they ‘“should’ve seen the movie high,” the man appeared out of place — an anachronism lost in a ditty of time. He looked like he listened to seashells, owned beach shorts before they were called beach shorts.

Inherent Vice

B+
Rave 20 and Quality 16
Warner Bros.


And for a few seconds, as I stared at the old man who stared into the trashcan, I thought maybe I’d found an incarnation of what Paul Thomas Anderson spent 148 minutes (and $35 million) constructing. An ode to a bygone era forever doomed to lament its own demise, to stare into nothingness as indifferent descendants strolled by.

Then, with a noticeable swell of his Hawaiian poncho, a bobble of his frayed ponytail, the old man threw up his head. He leaned back for a moment. I leaned in for a revelation.

He throatily hawked some snot into the can. “Well, that was a shit-boring movie” was what he said before disappearing into the night.

I agreed, kind of.

During the car ride home, when a friend made an exasperated comment about the film’s impenetrable plot — which is to say, its unfathomably complex clusterfuck of a story — I nodded, but clung to a hollow doubt that maybe the perplexity was intended. Maybe Anderson wanted half the theater to collectively mutter “whaaat the shit” under its breath as credits rolled. After all, the writing does accurately convey the tortuous Thomas Pynchon prose that inspired it. So maybe the head scratching was all part of the high? Maybe destiny intended me to look for answers in a poncho-draped geezer? Maybe?

Nah.

The film’s most obvious failing comes in the form of its unforgiving storytelling. It starts and ends with Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, “The Master”), an eternally-stoned 1960s private eye tasked by his ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston, “Being Flynn”), to pinpoint the whereabouts of her current beau, the millionaire land developer Micky Wolfman. From there, this otherwise straightforward noir rambles through hazes of marijuana fumes to greet Nazi bikers, cocaine-addled dentists, lesbian prostitutes and Owen Wilson’s Nose in a journey that climaxes in achieving not much more than further muddlement.

The head trip escalates in paranoia as Anderson and Pynchon’s threadbare strands of plot bind and intertwine themselves around an ethereal criminal organization called The Golden Fang, which seems to have sunk its teeth squarely into every illegitimate pie baking in fringe Los Angeles. Then as the film progresses and sinks deeper into conspiracy-laden confusion, something weird happens.

The audience gives up. It settles back, it reclines in cinema hall seats, it watches as Anderson attempts a brand of comedy inherently tied to Phoenix’s mutton chops. He’s what would happen if Winnie the Pooh met a few pounds of reefer — so well-intentioned, you often wonder how he manages to even fathom an act of wrongdoing let alone confront it. An air of optimistic puzzlement frames his every move, and Phoenix uses the lethargy well, drawing consistent laughs with the smallest facial tics awkwardness can allow.

The whimsical physicality of that portrayal is contrasted sharply by Josh Brolin’s (“No Country For Old Men”) Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, renaissance LAPD officer, lover of chocolate-dipped bananas and hater of all things hippie. Where Sportello whispers, Bjornsen screams. Where Phoenix toddles, Brolin marches. Yet, there’s a weird kinship developing between the characters that Anderson wants us to see. It’s emblazoned somewhere in that bygone-era ethos evoked throughout much of the movie, but subtler notes slip through in the two actors’ interactions. We see it when they play off each other, when they talk.

There’s never any doubting how Doc’s earnest, carefree behavior is going to be gobbled up by the impending ’70s, as is Bjornsen’s squareness, but there’s also solace in knowing the hippie lived/smoked a life he wanted in the time he had. The sunset feels decidedly more cataclysmic for his companion.

Brolin conveys a hidden vulnerability in his character’s operatic chest-beating that rings like a cry for help. He’s been hiding behind the straight lace for so long, even the drawn out, slow scenes where we see him doing nothing but sucking away at his chocolate-dipped bananas feel fraught with homoerotic undertones. It’s enough to warrant a laugh, and Anderson makes sure to offer them up every chance he gets, though the subtext here is gloomy at best.

The humor carries the freewheeling, lowbrow feel Pynchon wrote into his novel, and often, the punchlines are clearly better on paper than when stretched out on screen. But the movie doesn’t suffer for want of steadiness — there are enough chuckles to be had in the utter absurdity of the images to keep audiences watching. Confused, but watching.

The real culprit is hollowness, an impermeable “why” you keep asking yourself at the end of every scene, and, ultimately, a “why” that stretches itself across the whole film. Anderson’s response to that “why” would likely be to forget it even exists: Let the strangeness wash over you, marvel at the way it seeps into the smallest of plot devices, and only if you get the time, lean in for the much nastier shit growing inside — the class warfare, the racial tension, the hard drugs powering it all forward. The stuff that’s inevitable.

Making a film about the beach, coursing with soft dissolves and a cleansing sanguinity redolent of the tides, may just be Anderson’s way of finding some nostalgia in all that violence. It may simply be Doc curled down in a fetal position, thinking about that ex who will never really be just an ex, as a phalanx of police officers steps over him. What it’s not, well, at least not completely, is a shit-boring movie.

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