A title card in Inherent Vice references graffiti from a Paris wall in May of 1968, when French student and worker protests announced a social revolution there. That slogan --- “Under the pavingstones, the beach!” --- is about two forces pushing against one another, the cement on top eventually cracking due to the movement of looser, shifting material underneath.

It’s impossible to watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest – his adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon detective novel -- without thinking of that sort of foundational fracturing. It’s a theme he returns to with some frequency. From The Master (the dissipation of postwar euphoria), to There Will Be Blood (the end of The West), to Boogie Nights (the chilling of the sexually carefree 70s), Anderson straddles moments in American history and observes the country’s citizens flailing around as one cultural moment gives way to another.

Here it’s the end of the 1960s in a Southern California beach community, from the point of view of an exhausted, stoned, private eye named Larry "Doc" Sportello (a wrecked Joaquin Phoenix, simultaneously amused and repulsed by his own grime). He's on the trail of what begins as a plot to commit a real-estate mogul to a mental hospital and ends as a wriggling mass of cons, murders, disappearances and betrayals. This crime landscape is populated by an ever-growing, pulsating cast of suspects, informants, Ouija board enthusiasts, chatty prostitutes, deadbeats, red herrings, ex-lovers, evil dentists, counterculture turncoats, an angry flattop cop (Josh Brolin, hilariously tormented) and a bitter Deputy District Attorney (Reese Witherspoon, the human embodiment of cigarette smoke being blown in your face). Nearly every scene introduces a new human wrinkle until the mystery to be solved is so gnarled and tangled it becomes nearly irrelevant. Confusion is the method and the message.

The title refers to disintegration and unavoidable spoilage: eggs breaking, chocolate melting, metal rusting, all normal processes that nevertheless disrupt and about which little can be done. Anderson takes this concept, one that informed post-modern art and literature, and turns it loose. It's the context for characters who indulge in druggy mess-making, everyday human freaking and, at times, genuine evil. The Manson Family, the symbol of that era's hippie “Love” turned to horror, make their presence known over and over, as does that odd strand of sunny Southern California conservatism that gave the world Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The line between order and chaos turns fuzzy and weirdly funny, and Phoenix's occasionally justifiably paranoid Sportello stands in the unfixed center taking it all in.

Anderson’s cinematographer, Robert Elswit, creates an appropriately hazy visual field to accompany Anderson’s defiantly meandering script. This is the scratchy, grainy early 70s on display and every perfectly flawed frame appears to have been shot 44 years in the past, not as a nostalgic gesture, but as a reminder of what can get left behind as progress slides carelessly into the future. Meanwhile, Anderson's actors drop in and drop out like a truly dazed Laugh-In sketch that doesn't quite understand that it's meant to be half-sad, popping through open holes to explain, contradict, move the goalposts and make everything even blurrier. In the midst of it all Phoenix and Brolin act out a similar homosocial battle as the ones seen in earlier Anderson films, psychic warfare betwen Mark Wahlberg and Burt Reynolds, Paul Dano and Daniel Day Lewis, and Phoenix and Philip Seymore Hoffman.

Anderson's not alone in his devotion to exploring the recent past. French director Olivier Assayas approached similar territory in 2012’s Something In The Air, a film about young people grasping for the last strands of revolutionary action in the early 70s – that Paris vandalism again. Assayas, though not sentimental, still looked back with gentle forgiveness. Anderson is just fascinated and somewhat freaked out. This story knows that these characters are still alive, but old now, still funny and weird, maybe having learned nothing, and their world is still our world. The decades shove everyone forward, and we respond by trying to bury and eulogize the past. Inherent Vice excavates it, knowing that it's all still part of the goofy present.


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