In the dying days of the hippie movement, the drug culture lingered as the fashion craze receded. There was the hanger-on’s, of course, and Inherent Vice showcases one of those many men who refused to believe the good times were over. Loose-fitting shirts combine those looser attitudes to life and everything expected of the average person. Paul Thomas Anderson’s drug-seeped, seventies genre blender is a piece holding onto the hope that those good times may come again. It is the driving force behind leading man Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance as Larry “Doc” Sportello sees the shades of the sixties clash with the slowly modernising values of a whole new decade.
Useful it may be to have a genuine story at the heart of Inherent Vice, much of the writing lets us linger on the notes of freewheelin’ abandonment that was cool and rebellious at the end of one decade and vilified and stupid the very next. Sportello is not a layabout, he is a freelance detective of some description. He is fuelled by drugs, searching for his ex-girlfriend. Typical streams of paranoia are followed but are collated with some fresh and fascinating direction from Anderson, whose work here displays confidence in all the key areas. He does not shy away from the animosity between Sportello and Detective Christian Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). Anderson uses these two together as rather primitive parallels, but it opens the story to a necessary, wider picture.
Alongside this strong leading pair is a surprising cast of supporting actors. Maya Rudolph, Martin Short and Owen Wilson are just three of the many who are allowed (and capable) of spreading their dramatic wings. Faith in these performers is necessary, not just from Anderson but us as the audience. We are watching predominantly comedic actors try their hands at work that, while alien to us, is at home with them. This is not the first time they have performed at such a dramatic calibre, nor will it be their last. Their inclusion does allow Inherent Vice a rather peaceful, almost tranquil time. It coasts along on this feeling, one of acceptance for its lighter tones, which it knocks back at from time to time thanks to the paranoia-induced charge Sportello is presented with.
Where Anderson often thrives is when he takes a setting within the realms of reality and truth and builds his own story from the ground up. Those little nods are exceptional, and rapidly expanded upon by redeemably unique characters, yet slide into the fabric of time naturally. These are individuals who could well and truly have existed at this point in time, but their removal from feeling stagnant or stereotypical is a surprising one, especially since Anderson flirts with typical tropes from time to time within Inherent Vice. Drug-crazed and cooler heads clashing at every turn, the seedy landscape presented under the eyes of Short, and more than a handful of inspired moments from Benicio del Toro and Reese Witherspoon. The effect of it all is a film that feels like it could live and breathe in the real world, yet to unplug the sun-baked disillusionment of the leading character would leave a drab drama in its place.