Against the backdrop of sun-drenched coastal California landscapes and the seedy dregs of underworld intrigue, what emerges into the fore of Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice is a familiar opposition. Driving the action is the dialectic between the Squares and the Subversives, the Straights and the Slackers, the powers-that-be and the refuse on the fringes of society. As a hippy-doper P.I., Doc Sportello (played by Joaquin Phoenix, though Robert Downey Jr. was originally slated for the role) somewhat straddles this divide, but is solidly in the slacker camp while his nemesis and associate Christian 'Bigfoot' Bjornson (Josh Brolin), an LAPD cop, is the chief representative of the straights.
In The Big Lebowski—another neo-noir odyssey featuring a hapless hippy investigator—the titular character (another representative of the straight world) shouts at The Dude that "your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences: the bums lost." In Inherent Vice, the bums look to reverse this verdict. As Doc is progressively immersed into an intricate labyrinth of plotlines featuring addicts, nazis, whores, heroin cartels, feds and lunatics, the bewildering details and revelations of his investigation can distract from this rather simplistic morality play unfolding at the heart of the narrative.
Adventuring through 1970 California, which was steeped in post-Manson paranoia, Doc is kept grounded by a wise, ethereal friend named Sortilège. She persistently directs him to practical advice for living well, keeps him from losing himself in the case, and boosts his self-esteem. She is likely Doc's own conscience—the proverbial angel on his shoulder—cast as a character (she conspicuously doesn't interact with anyone else in the film.) We will return to her anon.
Early in his investigation Doc meets a young mother and ex-heroin-addict-turned-drug-counselor ("Now I try to talk kids into sensible drug use"), whose husband had died. She got straight after she realized her baby was getting sick from the heroin in her breastmilk. It later turns out that her husband Coy Harlingen (Luke Wilson) isn't actually dead but has become trapped in the criminal underworld, with the Feds using him as an informant and for political propaganda. Coy wants out of the life and to return to his wife and child, but can't exit because "it's like being in a gang." He turns to Doc for help.
At this critical juncture Doc again turns to Sortilège for advice. "What's gonna nag at you in the middle of the night?" she asks, which helps clarify for Doc that nothing else about his case really matters as long as he can help bring about this redemption for Coy, returning him to his family. Why returning to a toxic, co-dependent addict relationship where child abuse took place would constitute redemption for any of them remains unclear. But helping Coy, in turn, is cast as Doc's own salvation. Because Coy was thought dead by his wife, Doc speaks of him having "died and resurrected" and, lest the point be lost amidst excess subtlety, Anderson frames a shot mimicking the Last Supper with Coy at the center.
Coy's "death" had been into a life working for the feds as a narc, where he was used as a tool for anti-communist propaganda, and his resurrection is escape from that "darkness." The world of the straights, of the fascist cops and suburbanites, is the world of death in the film. While the world of goodness and light is revealed by the hippy-doper with a heart of gold. In addition to his good deed for Coy, Doc also finds solace and meaning in a brief moment of bliss with his muse, Shasta, which they reminisce over at the close of the film. The slogan characterizing this slice of paradise seems to approximately be "do what thou wilt—especially drugs and sex—plus maybe a good deed when you can." While also, of course, refusing to conform and become one of the squares.
This caveat is made especially apparent by Bigfoot's character arc. Behind the tough guy cop committing Civil Rights violations and taking names there lies a miserable home life where his wife humiliates him and his side gig as an extra on TV is drying up. Another representative of this fascist world, the father of a runaway teen, has a home life similarly in shambles resulting in him ruthlessly shifting blame to others for his failures as a father—at least that's how we're supposed to see his actions though they are actually fairly reasonable. Then there's the outwardly respectable D.A. who escapes to the beach for secret dope-laced trysts with hippies. The clear implication is that behind the ordered facade of the straight world lies the real hypocrisy, terror, and chaos.
This trope of the dark underbelly lurking behind every suburban mask of normality is a fairly familiar one in Hollywood, found in films like Blue Velvet, The Ice Storm, and American Beauty. And it isn't without its merits; there certainly are many hypocrisies and false fronts in American suburban life. But when juxtaposed with the idyllic hippie-hero, and with the representatives of the world of normality being caricatured so, it comes off as cheap, self-serving wishcasting. No one is ever just a normal upstanding citizen and father, every working stiff is hiding dark secrets and despotic rage. Meanwhile, despite their rampant degeneracy and dysfunction, it's in the slacker counterculture, among the social revolutionaries, where simple acts of decency can actually flourish (at least on occasion.) Even granting the pitfalls associated with suburban life, this rings particularly false.
The naive, saccharine morality of "just doing the right thing", along with the notion of the redemptive capacity of intimate moments with friends and lovers, syncs well with the predominant moral code of our own day. Right and wrong are simple and obvious (don't judge and do what thou wilt); the fascist baddies are well-known (right-wingers, families, and cops); meaning is to be found in good times with friends (not so much family, as that returns us to nature and hierarchy.) This ethos saturates us. Turn to a random friend's social media feed (if not your own), and you're likely to find it. As California's counterculture, in its various manifestations, has been domesticated and morphed into popular culture, or appropriated and usurped by Hollywood and Silicon Valley, what would have once been easily recognizable as subversive agitprop is now mainstream common sense. Even the heroin addiction and drug-running—once confined to the fringes of society—doesn't feel that strange today.
Here there are thematic echoes of Anderson's Boogie Nights, in which normal family life is unavailable due to submersion in a degenerate subculture (in that case, the porn world), and the characters grasp at constructing makeshift family relationships within the industry. They are not terribly successful, but the possibilities represented by small moments of connection and friendship are similarly held up as escape hatches to meaning, even amid the chaos. And as we learn in Inherent Vice, the world of the Straights is no better off and is probably worse.
To the film's credit, these themes aren't excessively dwelt upon as it unwinds its labyrinthine narrative. Most of the film's energy is expended on various wacky character interactions with Doc. But the insipid messaging reveals itself in the celluloid's id: order is always a mask hiding chaos and social dysfunction is no hindrance to finding fleeting moments of personal significance, which is the most anyone can aspire to. As subversion becomes institutionalized, it takes an act of willful exertion to avoid nodding along with the obvious lie.