Guilty pleasures

Inherent Vice4Inherent ViceCinemark 14. Rated Juan-Carlos Selznick

Rated 4.0

Paul Thomas Anderson’s frisky, crowded, rambling film version of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice exercises a weird, amiably bent fascination.

The book itself is generally viewed as one of Pynchon’s lesser efforts, but Anderson’s adaptation gives full, lively play to its strongest elements, in both word and spirit. And it may be that the novel’s half-unhinged combinations of paranoia and playfulness gain further resonance in this filmic rendering.

Anderson’s film runs well over two hours, but its drifting, trippy narrative steadily captivates even as its Pynchonesque ambiguities persist. The circumstances and setting themselves are richly intriguing—sunsplashed L.A. noir in the early 1970s, with a furry freak of a private eye, one “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), tracking missing persons and much else through a So-Cal cavalcade of grifters, cultists, devout pot-smokers, wealthy schemers, corrupt cops, stoned musicians, etc.

As both a film and novel, Inherent Vice is a kind of entropic inversion of the conventional detective story, but neither should be written off as mere parody. The lethal contradictions of American life in the late-20th century emerge here in ways that resonate right up to the present moment.

Sportello and his errant girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), embody those contradictions in sidelong fashion, while a half-crazed LAPD plainclothesman named “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (a farcically ferocious Josh Brolin) does the same, but in more blunt-edged ways. Assorted oddballs and eccentrics played by a large and diverse supporting cast (Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, Benicio Del Toro, Eric Roberts) add a good many apposite detail’s to the mix.