Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice isn't the towering masterpiece that those who admired There Will Be Blood and The Master were probably hoping for, and thank God for that. It's loose and free, like a sketchbook, though there's also something somber and wistful about it — it feels like less of a psychedelic scramble than the Thomas Pynchon novel it's based on.
But there's some zip to it, and Anderson appears to be reconnecting with the pleasure of directing a large ensemble of actors: Some of them come and go in the plot like casual visitors, kicking their shoes off for a moment and then disappearing for long stretches. Inherent Vice is just that kind of movie: An open house for all sorts of weirdos and misfits and gloriously off-kilter savants, the sort of thing Anderson pulls off best.
Joaquin Phoenix is Pynchon's half-canny, half-stoned-out-of-his-gourd private detective Doc Sportello, a scruffy romantic who's still in thrall to ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), the kind of clean-cut hippie chick just about anybody would be in love with in 1970 Los Angeles. Shasta shows up out of nowhere, desperate for a favor; Doc obliges, setting off on a noodly trek that leads him into the custody of his nemesis, Josh Brolin's Bigfoot, a dim-witted cop and wannabe actor.
By the end, you're not quite sure what happened. But as it's happening, at least you've got Joaquin Phoenix, in an assortment of rumpled denim shirts and stripy pants, sporting In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida sideburns that stretch across his wan cheeks like furry scimitars. He's an enjoyable caricature of a caricature, a spacey, paranoid genius who peers out at the world, and stumbles through it.