The more stately detective stories that have been adapted for the big screen are rarely about solving the mystery. Instead, the nucleus of the story typically focuses on the detective's personal demons rather than crime-solving. Films like The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, Chinatown and The Maltese Falcon are great examples of this dense tradition. But the key element of these films is that we're able to engage with the detectives, especially in regard to their flaws. With Inherent Vice, it's impossible to emotionally invest with anything or anyone, resulting in a cleverly stiff film that exists in sharp contrast to Paul Thomas Anderson's previous successes (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights, Magnolia).
The west coast in Anderson's new film isn't so much a depiction of California as the '60s were dying off as it is an informed simulacrum of a time and place desperately trying to repossess something it's lost. What is the "it"? Ask Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private dick who never got the memo that flower power is dead and buried. From his sketchy bungalow in the fictional neighborhood of Gordita Beach, he lives in a cloud of pot smoke with his fading memories of his beloved ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). One day Shasta turns up on Doc's doorstep, asking for help with her lover's wife because the wife is trying to commit him to an insane asylum. The hitch is that her lover is Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a real estate magnate with deep connections in the underworld.
From there, any attempt to synopsize Inherent Vice's plot is a Sisyphean feat. Layer upon layer, character upon character is thrown onto the dramatic heap, with everyone from a black radical (Michael K. Williams) to a sax player (Owen Wilson) getting their paws in the mix. The other player central is chocolate banana-sucking cop Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a square-jawed conservative repulsed by Doc, the "hippie scum."
While it's a blast to watch these characters shoulder their way into Doc's investigation, the plot seems so purposefully rigid that it's hard to make any real emotional or intellectual investment in the characters. The film's first hour is entertaining, as Anderson settles into the unrestrained sort of filmmaking he displayed in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but in the long run, Anderson seems more concerned with sly references and Easter eggs than anything else.
The exception may be Martin Short, who shines as a cocaine-fueled dentist of the Golden Fang (sort of like the Freemasons of dentistry). For the short amount of time he's on screen, Short delivers a giant, manic performance that steals the damn show. On the other hand, Joaquin Phoenix's Doc is a wildly irritating mumble-mouth who connects with nobody he comes across.
Doc is a lot like Elliot Gould's Philip Marlowe from 1973's The Long Goodbye, another private dick out of step with the people and places around him. Marlowe was a major mumble-mouth too, but his ramblings revealed a world-weary philosophy and code of honor far more engaging than anything Anderson puts forth in Inherent Vice. Even the Dude in The Big Lebowski may have been detached from the real world and other people in a way, but the humorous undercurrent made him relatable. And hell, he's the Dude.
A lot of people are going to bend over backwards to give Anderson's latest a rave review. But all you have to do is watch it alongside Boogie Nights to see how far Inherent Vice falls short.