In physics, an inherent vice is the tendency in physical objects to deteriorate because of the fundamental instability of the components of which they are made, as opposed to deterioration caused by external forces.

In law it’s an exclusion found in insurance policies eliminating coverage for loss caused by a quality in property that causes it to damage or destroy itself.

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s film of Thomas Pynchon’s cult novel, well, it means you shouldn’t examine the plot too closely or it may fall apart around you, collapsing in on itself like a house of cards. But why would you want to do that when what’s before you is so much fun?

California 1970 and the peace, love and psychedelia of the Age of Aquarius have given way to the paranoia and disillusionment ushered in by Nixon, Manson and Vietnam. When hippie private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is asked by his ex-old lady Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) to find her current lover, millionaire real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), he finds himself in a whole heap of trouble and way out of his depth. Shasta Fay believes Wolfmann has been railroaded into a psychiatric hospital by his wife and her new boyfriend and Doc’s investigation will see him get tangled up with Black militants and the Aryan Brotherhood, strongarm cops and dodgy lawyers, saxophonist spooks and drug dealing dentists in a plot too overly complicated and inconsequential to bother explaining.

While it’s obvious touchstones are Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, both of which turned a jaundiced, hungover eye on post-hippie California, there’s a good-natured sweetness to Inherent Vice those films lack. Like most detective films, the central mystery is inconsequential and the film almost feels like a befuddled, spiritual prequel to the Coen’s The Big Lebowski with Phoenix ‘s groovy private dick an unreliable and unwary guide/witness to the end of an era. It’s a warm, fuzzy blanket of a film that you enjoy immensely at the time but struggle to recall immediately after it finishes, a little like trying to watch the Paul Newman private eye flick Harper while drunk or stoned. You know you had a good time but you can’t recall the details.

Forget about the ramshackle plot, this is a film of moments and oddball characters, almost The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far of hippie stoner movies. Don’t worry if you don’t know who anyone is; you know who’s playing them and you’ve seen them do this kind of thing before. You’re in safe hands. Go with it. As Doc, Phoenix is perfectly cast, a human cartoon shambling through the film with a befuddled earnestness, every bit as confused as the audience, while Josh Brolin’s tough redneck cop almost deserves a film of his own. Reese Witherspoon’s tough District Attorney could be an older, more jaded Tracy Flick, Benicio Del Toro’s drug-addled lawyer could be practically any smooth talker Del Toro’s ever played and who better to play a sax player-turned-police informer than Owen Wilson doing his best Shaggy from Scooby Doo.

Wistful and gently amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny, Inherent Vice is a film you’ll be thinking and wondering about long after the credits. Mostly you’ll be thinking “What the Hell was all that about?” but it’s still the most I’ve enjoyed a Paul Thomas Anderson film since Boogie Nights.

Movie Review: Inherent Vice
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