The title of Inherent Vice—the first feature film adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel—refers to "a hidden defect in a good or property which causes or contributes to its deterioration, damage, or wastage." As Paul Thomas Anderson's film bears out, we all have one, as do our relationships and our country.
A casual viewing of Inherent Vice likely would make it seem to be about next to nothing or, perhaps, about far too much to bother with. Taking a page from Raymond Chandler (and as filtered through writer-director Anderson), Pynchon lays a labyrinthine trail through Los Angeles for his p.i. protagonist, stoner detective "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). Visited by ex Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), an apparently archetypal "woman in trouble," Doc finds himself shambling his way through a kidnapping investigation while dodging his frenemy (Josh Brolin's L.A.P.D. Lt. Detective "Bigfoot" Bjornsen) and encountering a motley assortment of oddballs and threatening types.
It is possible, though unlikely, that you'll follow the plot without taking notes, but the plot is a sideshow to Inherent Vice's luxuriant atmosphere, cracked sense of humor, and idiosyncratic characterization. Set in 1970, "Vice" captures a moment of disillusionment at the end of the swingin' sixties, and for Sportello, whose investigation pokes a hornet's nest of L.A. real estate corruption (shades of Chinatown's water wars) and forces him to confront his feelings for Shasta (even as he canoodles with Reese Witherspoon's deputy D.A.).
One of the best ensembles of the year inhabits this strange territory: Brolin's flattopped, "hippie-hating mad dog" (and S.A.G. member) is a certified hoot, a demented deadpan variation on good old conservative Joe Friday; Waterston seems painted onto the celluloid as the ethereal object of Doc's obsession; Owen Wilson pops up as a surf-sax legend and antisubversive undercover narc, with Jena Malone as his barely hinged squeeze; Jefferson Mays as a dubious doctor and Martin Short as a druggy dentist; and, best of all, Benicio Del Toro as eccentric maritime lawyer Sauncho Smilax.
Anderson's development from promising showoff to mature filmmaker has resulted in more "difficult," offbeat, but rich and rewarding films, like previous outing The Master. On this one, he stamps Pynchon's epigraph, that rallying cry of 1968 Paris "Under the paving-stones, the beach!" as an encapsulation of Vice's interest in the cold war between peace-and-love "free thinkers" and the "ancient forces of greed and fear" that exploit what Joanna Newsom's narrator refers to as "the American fate" of so-called civilization ("As long as American life was something to be escaped from, the cartel could always be sure of a bottomless pool of new customers"). On a more universal note: in the end, Doc stares into the face of that beach-blonde actress Shasta and wonders if she has an inherent vice, and which of his has held him there: love or obsessive compulsion.