‘Inherent Vice’ explores the hunger for escape

Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are among the featured players in the adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel, "Inherent Vice."

Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon are among the featured players in the adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel, "Inherent Vice."

Contributed photo / Contributed photo

As we see in “Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino loves movies and adores the absurd.

So does writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson.

After creating one absorbing drama after another — from “Magnolia” to “The Master” to “Phantom Thread” — he reminds us how funny he can be when he chooses to chill. With the irreverent “Inherent Vice,” from 2014, this director in search of meaning entertains his way through the Southern California idiosyncrasies of the early 1970s. Without the weight of a heavy message, or the burden to inspire tears, Anderson lite reminds us how much movie he can make because he knows how to tell a story, even one as unconventional as this look at the darker side of Los Angeles.

Anderson’s steady hand rewinds more than 40 years to those sordid moments when people embittered by Vietnam and threatened by Manson search for escape in all the wrong places. Doc — beautifully etched by Joaquin Phoenix — is everyone’s favorite private eye with a heart of gold, a craving for illegal substances and a conscience to save people. His life is littered with souls he tries to salvage, from an ex-girlfriend who chooses the wrong men, to a sometimes-girlfriend struggling with commitment to a grizzly cop with layers of anger. Doc is a cinema descendant of Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” or J.J. Gittes in “Chinatown,” a cynical poet who sees through follies. And when he compares himself to the fools he encounters, he puts himself at the top of the list. He knows a man can be too smart for his own good.

“As I adapted the book, I was fascinated how the profound could mix with the silly,” Anderson shared at a question-and-answer following the film’s screening at the New York Film Festival. “While I try to be faithful to the words, I am an interpreter in a different medium.”

With an emphasis on character over plot, Anderson captures the rhythm Thomas Pynchon brings to the novel without trying to recreate what specifically works on the page. Instead Anderson uses Pynchon’s view as a starting point to explore why people try to escape. In a film where everyone seems to be running from something — a challenging relationship, an inconvenient commitment, an occasional hitman — Anderson reveals the unusual destinations they may choose, from the private eye’s office in a medical suite to the haven for a most unusual dentist (beautifully etched by Martin Short) to a pristine hideaway for troubled souls. No matter where they may run, however, these lost men and women look to Doc for reassurance, as if this most troubled of souls can provide relief. Or perhaps they trust because is the only one resigned to stay just where he is.

While this is not a film for the entire family, adults who love movies will be fascinated. Cinematographer Robert Elswit perfectly captures the look of early 1970s film as he leaves every scratch on the screen in beautiful 35 mm. Production designer David Crank — without pursuing parody — displays the extreme look of the period in his sets while the costumes by Mark Bridges captures every potential cliché with his strategic use of paisley. Their work helps Anderson visualize the fear that fuels a need to run. No matter how exaggerated the characters may be, he makes us believe they sincerely struggle with their self-induced chaos as they hope to find a way to jump over the fences they build for themselves.

In each film, Anderson explores the souls of people who get through a day by hoping that something may take them away. While we know he can tell such a story with dramatic tones, “Inherent Vice” confirms that, when he gets tickled, Anderson still knows what he wants to say. Just as Quentin Tarantino does with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

“Inherent Vice” is Rated R for drug use, sexual content, nudity, language and some violence. The film runs 148 minutes. It is available online for streaming and on DVD.