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'Inherent Vice' review: Joaquin Phoenix is a hippie private eye

Joaquin Phoenix, as Larry

Joaquin Phoenix, as Larry "Doc" Sportello, and Katherine Waterston as Shasta Fay Hepworth in Warner Bros. Pictures' and IAC Films' "Inherent Vice." Credit: AP / Wilson Webb

The year is 1970 and the setting is fictional Gordita Beach, California, in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice." Our hero is Larry "Doc" Sportello, a pot-addled hippie and unlikely private eye played by Joaquin Phoenix in a denim shirt and mutton-chop sideburns; the girl he loves is Shasta Fay Hepworth, a flower-power casualty played by Katherine Waterston in a knit top and straight-parted hair. Shasta is in trouble, as dames are no matter what the era, and she needs Doc's help.

A zonked-out combination of 1940s noir and 1960s underground comic, "Inherent Vice" is the product of two pop-culture omnivores: Thomas Pynchon, whose 2009 novel provides the source material, and Anderson, the brilliant stylist who directed "Boogie Nights." This first-ever Pynchon film adaptation features an eclectic ensemble cast, period costumes, narration from indie-rock harpist Joanna Newsom and an intentionally kitschy score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. "Inherent Vice" would seem to offer everything a postmodern moviegoer could want.

True to Pynchon's form, "Inherent Vice" takes most of American culture after World War II and runs it through a Cuisinart. Doc's latest case involves biker gangs, rock bands, spiritualist communes, drug runners, a Nixon rally, a pansexual masseuse (an appealing Hong Chau), a laid-back government informant (Owen Wilson) and a pot-smoking district attorney played by Reese Witherspoon. Harshing Doc's mellow is Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), a flat-topped cop with macho swagger but a strange attraction to frozen bananas.

The actors tackle their caricatures with gusto, and there are some moments of gonzo humor (look for Martin Short as a coke-snorting dentist). What "Inherent Vice" is actually saying, however, about hippies, America, society, The Man or anything, is unclear. The movie mostly feels like one long in-joke, an ironic theme party with groovy outfits, dated slang ("I can dig") and cans of your father's beer brand. The movie's only real human moment comes from Waterston in a mesmerizingly erotic scene with Phoenix that's almost worth the price of admission.

Everyone and everything else in "Inherent Vice" seems like a symbol, a reference or a wisecrack with no larger point or context. It is, as the heads used to say, a goof.

"Vice" Back Story

Work on "Inherent Vice" started months before the cameras rolled. Director Paul Thomas Anderson gave Joaquin Phoenix both Thomas Pynchon's original book and the script to read.

Phoenix had started reading the book a second time when he realized that with a character this strange and different, there was a chance of knowing too much about the role. (Phoenix plays Doc Sportello, a 1970s private eye who lives his life in a drug-induced haze.)

"I want to be confused by what is going on," Phoenix says. "It also didn't help that Paul combined characters. I would remember the dialogue, but remember it being said by someone else."

Phoenix depended on Anderson to keep him going in the right direction. The pair are comfortable working together after doing The Master together.

"He's always searching for something else. . . . He will ask if there's something else we haven't discovered yet. I like that way of working. It keeps everybody working and searching really hard to find something unexpected."

Anderson showed Phoenix a photo of rocker Neil Young to help the actor understand the look he was going for with the character of Doc Sportello. Phoenix put his own spin on the wardrobe to complete what he calls an organic process of acting. -- Fresno Bee

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