Say what you will about filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, but he’s not known for shortcuts. While many directors of his generation are off making CGI-heavy franchise fare, he’s committed to making his own brand of character-driven features. That’s what makes his new Inherent Vice — Anderson’s seventh film — so disappointing. It would seem to be in his strike zone, but it never quite connects.
Opening today, this big-screen adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is a combo comedy, stoner tale and crime drama of sorts. It’s The Big Lebowksi meets Chinatown meets Raymond Carver meets Cheech and Chong, fitfully funny but several movies rolled into one. It’s 1970 in (fictional) Gordita Beach, California. Joaquin Phoenix is Larry “Doc” Sportello, a private investigator, almost perpetually stoned, whose girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) has dumped him.
She returns later to get his professional help with a mystery that spikes his interest — the disappearance of her new lover, whose wife wants to put him in an asylum. Doc’s pursuit leads him through a cavalcade of characters in all sorts of seedy places as well as toward something called the Golden Fang. Along the way, he is asked to look into the disappearance of a musician (Owen Wilson) who is supposed to be dead. Yet Doc’s major obstacle proves to be Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a veteran Los Angeles cop and an old nemesis.
Inherent Vice is perhaps the director’s most openly comedic film — a scene where Doc visits an Asian massage parlor is crude and priceless. The film is also moody and full of period attention. The problem is that Anderson hasn’t tried to streamline or simplify his narrative. Devout fans of the novel should be able to follow this, but those not familiar might easily get lost.
That the plot is secondary to its large cast of characters isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw, but the way the film jumps back and forth almost randomly between them all is. At well over two hours, it becomes a task keeping track of who’s who.
Anderson brings out an agreeably goofy, dazed side of Phoenix, who is showing the kind of range (from Her to the recent period piece The Immigrant) some might not have expected. His double takes at some of his costars are priceless. Brolin has some droll moments, as well, as a man not above stepping over the law to get what he wants. Yet not much around these two sticks.
In his finest work (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will be Blood) Anderson has shown complexity and the willingness to build layers. Adapting Pynchon’s work — which many have felt could not be adapted for the screen — he is clearly enamored with these characters. Few directors can wrestle up ensembles like he can, and his cast is lively, sprinkled with the likes of Jena Malone, Benicio del Toro, Martin Short, Eric Roberts and Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s significant other) in a cameo. Reese Witherspoon is a deputy D.A. whose demeanor changes behind closed doors. It’s kind of fun to see Phoenix and Witherspoon (Walk the Line’s Johnny and June Carter) reunited. But like many here, Witherspoon is on a carousel, briefly perking up a scene and then disappearing for a lengthy period.
Alas, Waterston is in the film more than most others and is a remote presence. It’s the feelings Doc has for Shasta that is supposed to get him interested in the case, but Waterston and Phoenix are not well matched.
Inherent Vice is a lot like Anderson’s last film, The Master, which was easy to admire for its acting and intent but hard to warm up to. Like that work, this film is likely to be avoided by the masses. Anderson is one of the most gifted, adventurous directors around. Let’s hope he can get back on track soon. His latest is a trippy ride, but the buzz wears off quickly.
Inherent Vice. With Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Rated R. 148 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.