Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon
After more than fifty years in the publishing game, it seemed fitting that it would take a director such as Paul Thomas Anderson to bring Thomas Pynchon’s novels to the screen.
Set in 1970 southern California, Inherent Vice follows stoner private detective Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello as he’s called upon by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (wonderfully played by Katherine Waterston) to investigate the disappearance of her wealthy, property magnate married lover, Mickey Wolfmann. This initial calling will lead Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc into a world of double-dealings, seedy transgressions, nefarious characters and the ethereal underbelly of Pynchon’s strange Angeleno world as brought to life by Anderson and his crack team of collaborators.
The resulting movie is something of a mixed affair. At once, Inherent Vice is a dizzying array of kaleidoscopic weirdness, populated with strange and bizarrely wonderful characters and at the same time, a wholly frustrating and ponderous whirlwind of self-indulgent baloney.
Infused with Pynchon’s rich text and crackling with the author’s wonderful dialogue, the film is a beautiful as it is unsatisfying. The plot is as chaotic and rambling as one might expect from a pseudo sunlit noir tale, and as Phoenix’s Doc navigates every new narrative turn through his marijuana infused paranoia, it often feels that Anderson himself becomes lost in the same surreal and otherworldly narrative milieu that Doc finds himself in.
As the film progresses, the plot becomes ever more elusive, with more names added while it would seem that varying plot threads come and go at a whim. Anderson’s static style and his decision to keep his camera and actors fixed in place affords the film a languid and plodding quality that makes the whopping two and a half hour runtime feel double that. I found myself checking my watch more than once during the film’s second act.
On the plus side there is still a lot of fun to be had. Phoenix is wonderfully restrained in the role of Doc, looking on behind big shades with a casual confusion as each new revelation or development drops onto his path. Meanwhile, Josh Brolin and Reese Witherspoon light up the screen whenever they appear and Martin Short (in an all too brief appearance) revels as dentist Dr. Blatnoyd.
Compiled as a whole, Inherent Vice is a strange beast of a movie. Certainly lighter in tone than Anderson’s last two efforts, but it comes with an added sadness and melancholia as Doc wanders through sunlit soaked LA streets, carrying the torch for his “ex-old lady.”
Despite my own reservations, it’s a film that certainly demands repeat viewings, not necessarily to understand the narrative but simply to bask in the kaleidoscopic, ethereal haze of Pynchon’s world as interpreted by Paul Thomas Anderson. Just don’t expect to understand much of it…