Paul Thomas Anderson was making serious movies long before he started making “serious” movies, ponderous works of certified art like There Will Be Blood and The Master. His earliest pictures, like Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, and even the later Magnolia, were wily, imperfect, vibrating with life like yeast springing to action in warm water. They were serious without advertising their sincerity, and their raggedy, stringy edges were proof of Anderson’s dedication to craftsmanship rather than evidence of a lack of it: You could see that he cared about beauty and structure and precision, but the vitality of his characters came first, elbowing all else out of the way if necessary.
But in his last two pictures Anderson has shown a preoccupation with bigger-than-life, flawed men and epic themes that can best be summed up by commodious white-elephant-art thesis sentences like “Mankind! What price hubris?” Maybe that’s why Anderson’s latest, a faithfully woolly-brained adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s West Coast detective novel Inherent Vice, is such a huge relief, as if a giant gas bubble had finally, with great effort, reached the surface of the pond with a cathartic blurp.
Inherent Vice is in some ways a godawful mess, indulgent in a way a less-respected director would never be able to get away with. And it’s two and a half hours long not because it needs to be, but because it can be. (Pynchon’s novel is relatively slender.) But there’s some zip to it, and Anderson appears to be reconnecting with the pleasure of directing a large ensemble of actors: Some of them come and go in the plot like casual visitors, kicking their shoes off for a moment and then disappearing for long stretches. Inherent Vice is just that kind of movie: an open house for all sorts of weirdos and misfits and gloriously off-kilter savants, the sort of thing Anderson pulls off best.
This adaptation is in some ways an improvement on the book: Pynchon’s prose is highly entertaining, but his frenetic pileup of imagery can also make you feel you’re in the company of a strung-out squirrel gathering nuts for the coming apocalypse, or at least just the winter. Anderson captures the wired syncopation of Pynchon’s dialogue, but he opens it out, giving it air and space. (Come to think of it, that’s probably how you end up with a two-and-a-half-hour movie.) Most of all, he had a great deal of fun with the casting: Joaquin Phoenix is Pynchon’s half-canny, half-stoned-out-of-his-gourd private detective Doc Sportello, a scruffy romantic who’s still in thrall to ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), the kind of clean-cut hippie chick just about anybody would be in love with in 1970 Los Angeles. (The story takes place in a fictional surfers’ Shangri-La known as Gordita Beach, a Manhattan Beach stand-in.) Shasta shows up out of nowhere, desperate for a favor; Doc obliges, setting off on a noodly trek that, after a brief and ill-advised stop-in at Chick Planet Massage, leads him into the custody of his nemesis, Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot, a dim-witted cop and wannabe actor.
The pleasures of Inherent Vice lie chiefly in wondering who’s going to show up next, and how: Benicio Del Toro shambles onto the scene as a sleepy-eyed, dissolute lawyer with the superbly Pynchonesque name Sauncho Smilax. Jena Malone is fragile and touching as a recovering dope addict who’s hoping Doc can find her husband, confused idealist and beach-bum saxophonist Coy Harlingen -- and since there is no one better suited to play a confused idealist and beach-bum saxophonist than Owen Wilson, Anderson, astutely, got him.
The plot takes a thousand and one hairpin turns, leaving a thousand and one hairpins behind. By the end of it, you’re not quite sure what happened. But as it’s happening, at least you’ve got Phoenix, in an assortment of rumpled denim shirts and stripy pants, sporting In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida sideburns that stretch across his wan cheeks like furry scimitars. He’s an enjoyable caricature of a caricature, a spacey, paranoid genius who peers out at the world, and stumbles through it, like a boho Mr. Magoo.
Inherent Vice isn’t the towering masterpiece that those who admired There Will Be Blood and The Master were probably hoping for, and thank God for that. It’s loose and free, like a sketchbook, though there’s also something somber and wistful about it -- it feels like less of a psychedelic scramble than the novel it’s based on. Shot by Anderson regular Robert Elswit, it has a gorgeously hazy, neon-lit glow. And though it’s characteristically Andersonian in its attention to detail, it also shows, once again, what he can do with actors when he’s not treating them as grand symbols of humanity. Losers, dreamers, arrogant meatheads who still have soul, none of them bearing placards to indicate what major themes of literature or art or existence they stand for: These are Anderson’s people, and in Inherent Vice, they swarm around him, marching him back in the direction of termite art.