“Trying to connect the dots when it comes to Pynchon’s work could drive a person insane … ” a writer from Vulture.com confesses cheerfully. Of course, this isn’t unique to Thomas Pynchon novels. I mean, who killed the chauffeur in “The Big Sleep”? Even Raymond Chandler professed not to know …. and he wrote the book! Actually, though, there is a semblance of a plot in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Pynchon’s 2009 novel INHERENT VICE. But be warned: this post is by a guy who figured David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive made sense.
The film is set in the lazy, crazy, spacey days of the early Seventies. Pot-smoking private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receives a visit from his former girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), now having a fling with real estate tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and convinced her current flame has been shanghaied to an insane asylum by his gorgeous trophy wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her current lover, Riggs Warbling (odd names are a Pynchon specialty).
Along the way, we meet LAPD detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin); Doc’s former galpal, assistant D.A. Penny Kimball (an almost unrecognizable Reese Witherspoon), shady lawyer Sauncho Smilax (a reliably quirky Benicio del Toro, although he proved he could play it straight in an Oscar-winning role as a world weary cop in 2000’s “Traffic”); Martin Short as coke-sniffing dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd; onetime Academy Award nominee Jeannie Berlin (Best Supporting Actress, “The Heartbreak Kid”, 1972) as Aunt Leet (Ms. Berlin voices the audiobook version of Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge”, which I am currently reading/listening to); secretary/receptionist Petunia Leeway ( former “Saturday Night Live” regular Maya Rudolph, PT Anderson’s wife in real life) and Shasta Fay’s BFF, Sortilege (singer/songwriter/harpist Joanna Newsom),who provides the film’s voiceover narration , among many other weird but wonderful characters.
Doc also picks up two new cases: a black militant (Michael K. Williams, Omar of “The Wire” fame ) hires him to find a fellow ex-con and a sometime drug addict (Jena Malone) believes her missing musician husband (Owen Wilson) is still alive and wants Doc to bring him home.
Anderson, as director, gives this film a woozy haze that almost gave me a contact high. Mr. Phoenix is perfect casting in the lead role since he has cultivated an air of controlled eccentricity in recent years. For actor Roberts, this is one of the few chances to appear on a bigger screen. It’s hard to believe this guy once starred in box office hits (Pope of Greenwich Village) and actually has an Oscar nomination to his credit (Best Supporting Actor Runaway Train 1985) when his recent resume lists films with titles like Wild Things in Europe 3-D, Santa’s Boot Camp and The Sicilian Vampire. (You have to wonder, as Mickey Rourke did after a brief comeback in 2008’s The Wrestler, who Roberts has, um, antagonized in Hollywood for his recent fall from grace.)
But the real breakout star here is Ms. Waterson in a no-holds-barred performance that distances her from such early attempts at stardom as 2007’s The Babysitters. With her sultry and enigmatic perf here they may soon be referring to Sam Waterston as Katherine Waterston’s father.