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Say what you will about writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, love him or hate him, it’s impossible to deny his status as one of the pivotal filmmakers of the past two decades. Ever since exploding into the public conscience with surprise hit Boogie Nights (1997), Anderson hasn’t crafted “films” so much as he’s created “events”: his fussy, overly-complex character studies have marked him as the modern-day Robert Altman and his relatively small output (seven full-lengths in 19 years) insures that a hungry public is always ready for the next course.

When Anderson’s films click with the zeitgeist, they go over like gangbusters: Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and There Will Be Blood (2007) all made their fair share of coin at the box office, without bending one inch towards anything approaching easy conformity. They also managed to enter into the pop culture vernacular, which may just be the greatest measure of a film’s indelible mark (for better or worse). When Anderson’s films don’t click with the general public, such as Magnolia (1999) or The Master (2012), they’re still afforded the respect due previous generations of auteurs like Coppola, Scorsese or Altman. Again, love him or hate him, any new Paul Thomas Anderson film is a big deal, precisely because he’s yet to turn in anything compromised, easily digested or disposable.

This, of course, brings us to Anderson’s newest film, a cinematic adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s acid-etched love letter to ’70s-era Los Angeles, Inherent Vice (2015). On the outside, Pynchon and Anderson seem to be as natural fits as a hand in a glove: after all, who better to bring Pynchon’s notoriously thorny prose, subtle satirical edge and often outrageous characters to the big screen than the filmmaker who made Dirk Diggler and Daniel Plainview household names? With his ability to expertly balance the dark and light sides of characters, to find the comedy in the tragedy and vice versa, who better to bring the misadventures of Doc Sportello to the eager masses?

Our erstwhile protagonist and guide through the neon-lit proceedings is Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, re-teaming with Anderson after The Master), the perpetually confused, constantly pot-befogged private detective who seems to float, unscathed, through one potentially lethal situation after another, a literal babe in the woods whose inherent naivety just may be his greatest weapon. After old flame, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), pops back up in his life with a plea for help, Doc is thrust into the shadowy underworld of ultra-hip 1970s L.A., rubbing shoulders with shady dentists, dangerous foreign drug traffickers, corrupt cops, sinister New Age healing centers and white supremacists.

As Doc tries to figure out just what the hell is really going on, he runs afoul of his former partner from his days on the police force, Lt. Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a genuinely strange individual who believes Doc to be part of some sort of Manson-esque cult, even as he seems to know more about Doc’s situation than he lets on. With new factions and players being revealed at seemingly every turn, it’s up to Doc to (somehow) blunder into the truth, unraveling the overly complex machinations to reveal the surprisingly simple core.

From the jump, one thing is plain and clear about Inherent Vice: it’s easily Anderson’s lightest, funnest and funniest film since Boogie Nights. Brisk, colorful, full of quirky, memorable dialogue and equally memorable characters, Inherent Vice is the epitome of a cinematic “good time,” a film that’s as eager to please as a friendly puppy. In many ways, Inherent Vice is more The Long Goodbye (1973) than Chinatown (1974), a cheerful, slighty hazy, shaggy-dog story that never feels oppressive, despite its film noir trappings.

Like most of Anderson’s films, Inherent Vice features a cast that’s almost an embarrassment of riches. There’s Phoenix, of course, doing his dependable best (more on that later) but he wouldn’t have nearly the impact without the rest of the exceedingly game cast. First and foremost, Brolin is an absolute blast as Bigfoot, providing the film with many of its most explicitly funny scenes/moments (the scene in the sushi restaurant is a comic masterpiece, with Brolin’s shouted “Molto panacayku!” being the brilliant cherry on top). The interaction between Brolin and Phoenix is endlessly fascinating, a giddy mixture of absurd violence, mopey nostalgia and genuine insanity that powers the film like a generator, along with providing just the right amount of emotional gravitas (when needed). Always a dependable actor, Brolin has rarely been more fun than this.

Waterston is great as Doc’s one-true-love, bringing just the right amount of angelic etheriality and earthy sexuality to the role: it’s easy to see why Doc is so obsessed with her (always a key element to this kind of thing) and their scenes together perfectly play up their largely unspoken past. As somehow who usually finds cinematic sex scenes to be largely unnecessary and…well…largely unsexy…I also must admit that the scene where Waterston graphically describes her sexual adventures before Phoenix spanks her (among other things) absolutely smolders. I’ll stand corrected: sex scenes can be sexy, after all.

Really, though, the role call of great performances could continue for some time: Owen Wilson is perfect as poor Coy Harlingen; Benecio del Toro pretty much reprises his role from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and the second time is just as much a charm; Martin Short is ruthlessly smarmy as the Golden Fang’s “legitimate” business front; Reese Witherspoon gets to play against type as Doc’s growly D.A. girlfriend; singer Joanna Newsom has fun as the film’s narrator/Doc’s imaginary muse; and Hong Chau is pure nitro as diminutive masseuse/Golden Fang employee, Jade.

Above and beyond it all, however, slouches the inimitable shadow of Phoenix’s Doc Sportello. For all intents and purposes, Phoenix doesn’t play Sportello: he BECOMES Doc, slipping into his amiable, doped-out shoes with such ease that it’s less acting than channeling a past life. Similar to Elliot Gould’s unflappable, off-the-cuff take on Philip Marlowe, Phoenix’s Doc is the living embodiment of “the reed bends so that it doesn’t break.” Regardless of the situation, whether faced with a loaded firearm, a skinhead with a lethal dose of heroin or the sudden reappearance of his dream girl, Doc (and Phoenix) approach it all with the same sense of wide-eyed, innocent befuddlement. It’s an approach that could have come across as needlessly comedic, in the wrong hands (I shudder to imagine what Johnny Depp might have done here, for example), but works like a charm here. Phoenix is one of the era’s most esteemed actors for precisely this reason: his ability to imbue the material with the proper amount of weight, regardless of how lightweight it might (or might not) be is virtually unparalleled.

From a filmcraft perspective, Inherent Vice is undeniably lovely, featuring a burnished, warm tone that befits the era (cinematographer Robert Elswit has shot all of Anderson’s films, with the exception of The Master) and another one of those chock-a-block musical scores that are so emblematic of Anderson’s films (Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood does the honors here, just like he did for There Will Be Blood and The Master). The film’s neon-and-pastel aesthetic perfectly fits the slightly goofy material, culminating in a neon-bedecked credit sequence that just might be my favorite way to end a film in years.

After all of that’s said and done, however, one question still remains: how does Inherent Vice stack up against the rest of Anderson’s formidable filmography? Despite how much I, personally, enjoyed the film (it’s easily my second favorite Anderson movie, after Boogie Nights), I won’t deny that it’s also a surprisingly slight offering. Despite the overly complex nature of the plot and the endless ways in which the large cast maneuver in and around each other, the resolution is surprisingly, almost smugly simple: it’s the machinations of Chinatown minus any of the actual import.

Not to say that this doesn’t dovetail neatly with Pynchon’s source material (the “so convoluted it’s simple” structure is one of the novel’s best jokes, along with the patently ridiculous character names like Doc Sportello, Bigfoot Bjornsen, Michael Wolfmann, Sauncho Smilax and Rudy Blatnoyd) but it also makes for a film that’s the equivalent of a heaping helping of cotton candy: colorful, fun and capable of giving a mighty sugar rush but patently devoid of any nutritional value. Unlike the angle Anderson took with Boogie Nights, there’s precious little in the way of genuine emotional weight here and the whole thing feels relatively low stakes. We never really fear for Doc since he’s such a charmed idiot, similar to how no one ever really worried that Buster Keaton was going to blunder into actual physical danger.

Ultimately, however, these are probably more the quibbles of an ultra-fan than any damning criticism: regardless of how lightweight or disposable the film often feels, it’s still a Paul Thomas Anderson flick through and through and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sort of a spiritual little brother to the Coens’ immortal The Big Lebowski (1998) (if you cross your eyes just right, you can see a lot of The Dude in Phoenix’s bewildered performance), Inherent Vice is an utterly alive, cheeky and cheerful good time. Smart, groovy and as breezy as a warm, tropical day, Inherent Vice may be one of Anderson’s least thorny creations but I doubt you’ll be thinking about that much once you get caught up in the insanity.

As Doc’s muse notes, at one point: “Doc may not be a ‘do-gooder’ but he’s done good.” To piggyback on that sentiment: Inherent Vice may not be perfect but it’s pretty damn good, nonetheless.

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