Like Charles Bukowski or Bret Easton Ellis (though some might find these comparisons egregious), Thomas Pynchon knows how to wield L.A. to its optimum sinister level. So, too, does director Paul Thomas Anderson, officially anointed into a new class of filmmaker after being the first person to be permitted to adapt a Pynchon novel.
Anderson, whose last film was the fairly straightforward The Master, undoubtedly helps ease Pynchon's style into the masses. Set in 1970 Los Angeles, a town still reeling from the Manson murders and subsequent trial, Inherent Vice gives us a glimpse into the shift that occurred in terms of hippie perception at the dawn of this decade. Once seen as a harmless stoner, free love-loving sect, they suddenly became an entity to fear--a faction whose drug consumption could taint them at any minute, prompting them to start cults and kill people.
At the center of it all is private detective Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), attempting to be a good man in spite of the many drug and sexual temptations at his unwashed fingertips, hence the frequent need for critics to allude to The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski when discussing this film. Portrayed as possibly the last person with a moral compass in L.A. (which is saying a lot considering his profession and psychedelic preferences), Doc is confronted by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), in a scene that blurs the line between fantasy and reality (in fact, we are often left to wonder how much of the story is Doc's hallucination). She tells him that she's worried about her boyfriend, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts--who would have thought he would ever get another movie role?). Subsequently, Wolfmann and Shasta disappear, leaving Doc to put together the pieces.
Another puzzler in terms of the moral ambiguity of the time is Detective Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a man who is--much to the Bluths' delight--always sucking on frozen bananas. It is, indeed, these nuances that make the film version of this novel so enjoyable to watch. Bigfoot waffles between the classification of good and evil as well, with his approach to law enforcement being more than a bit gruff, and yet, having an undeniable soft spot for Doc even though he's a hippie, and therefore stands for everything Bigfoot hates.
Though there are many seemingly intricate plot points (ones that also involve Sasha Pieterse, a.k.a. Alison "A" DiLaurentis on Pretty Little Liars, as Japonica Fenway) that lead to other more seemingly intricate sub-plot points, Inherent Vice is really about the struggle to be good in times that openly espouse the benefits of being bad. Other than that, if you try to make any true sense of something derived from a Pynchon novel, you'll end up in the Chryskylodon Institute like Japonica or Mickey. The best thing to do is let Paul Thomas Anderson be your non-partisan guide through the world created by Pynchon. You'll feel so much safer when you do.