Joaquin Phoenix gets stoned in ‘Inherent Vice’

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Draped in translucent lights and pot-smoking subversions, “Inherent Vice” takes the infinitely rich imagination that can be found in a novel and brings its energy to the screens. Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, Paul Thomas Anderson writes and directs the crime comedy-drama adaptation, breathing life into the absurd frames of Pynchon’s storyline and carrying the film through a variety of dreamlike stages, guaranteeing audiences a trippy crime story splattered with laughs.

Set in Los Angeles in 1970, Joaquin Phoenix stars as the dope-smoking private investigator Doc Sportello, who gets caught up in a case searching for a missing person. Meanwhile, Josh Brolin as detective Bjornsen, a.k.a. Bigfoot, delivers a spotless performance with his straightlaced persona driving laughs throughout. Brolin plays a hippie-hating cop who moonlights as an actor, while his scenes with Doc serve to bring about huge comedic trips that lighten the film. Doc thrives on each of his many drug highs, all in an effort to aid his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) and the multitude of other characters he meets as the dramedy progresses.

Serving as one of these significant encounters, Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) hires Doc to help her find her missing husband, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), who’s been pronounced dead –– but she’s convinced otherwise. The search for Harlingen leads to a prostitute named Jade (Hong Chau), who helps Doc search for his ex-girlfriend’s new wealthy boyfriend, who just so happens to be the victim of another scheming plot. Yes, the film’s story gets just as fuzzy and confusing as that last sentence, but that’s usually the effect of a stoner trip, and that’s just what spending more than two hours with the weed-loving Doc feels like: strange but funny confusion.

The stakes for the first film adaptation of one of Pynchon’s novels will always remain high because Pynchon’s novels are notorious for their dense and complex plots. Anderson rises to this challenging occasion, bringing a solid script that captures the certain cockamamie plot twists that could possibly frustrate some audiences who prefer straight-shot coherency in a film. This kind of plot runs beautifully on paper and transports the reader into an appreciated journey, but on screen, this type of story may not do so well due to the audience’s thirst for consistency and understandable desire to simply understand what’s going on.

The plethora of characters introduced in the film are involved in encounters that seem borderline delusional from Doc’s perspective, but the audience can learn to trust his point of view and judgment. The list of characters is a long one, even though Anderson cut it down from the original. Each meeting with a new character introduces a separate story that could trail on in another direction if desired, which allows the movie to keep audiences interested.

The film maintains subtle comedy and a few dark moments in the character dialogues, an example of which stands in one of the more memorable scenes between Doc and Shasta. The scene departs from being a simple sexual encounter and instead entangles within it the emotions conveyed through Waterson’s monologue, aided by the camera’s unrelenting gaze. Throughout the scene, Waterson’s performance and Anderson’s cinematic choices leave the audience with slightly disturbed feelings — see it, and you’ll understand why. All the while, Waterson’s character remains an enigma to Doc and the audience –– but then again, none of the characters have any thorough character backgrounds, allowing the audience to feel most akin to Doc.

While several of Pynchon’s golden lines are kept in the film, those who have never read his work can still enjoy the exceptional performances and quips that provide comedy throughout. For impatient and easily frustrated moviegoers, however, the film may not be the best choice due to its incoherency.

“Inherent Vice” is now showing at the California Theatre in Berkeley.

Contact Melanie Jimenez at [email protected].