Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Maya Rudolph, Jena Malone, Sasha Pieterse, Martin Short, Anders Holm, Wilson Bethel, Peter McRobbie, Timothy Simons
Runtime: 2 hrs 28 mins
Rating: M18 (Drug Use and Sexual Scenes)
Released By: Warner Bros Pictures
Official Website: http://inherentvicemovie.com
Opening Day: 29 January 2015
Synopsis: When private eye Doc Sportello’s ex-old lady suddenly out of nowhere shows up with a story about her current billionaire land developer boyfriend whom she just happens to be in love with, and a plot by his wife and her boyfriend to kidnap that billionaire and throw him in a loony bin…well, easy for her to say. It’s the tail end of the psychedelic `60s and paranoia is running the day and Doc knows that “love” is another of those words going around at the moment, like “trip” or “groovy,” that’s being way too overused—except this one usually leads to trouble. With a cast of characters that includes surfers, hustlers, dopers and rockers, a murderous loan shark, LAPD Detectives, a tenor sax player working undercover, and a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, which may only be a tax dodge set up by some dentists... Part surf noir, part psychedelic romp — all Thomas Pynchon.
Some fiction should remain on the page, and ‘Inherent Vice’ is to us an unequivocal example of how even a master filmmaker should take that adage to heart. For good reason, acclaimed novelist Thomas Pynchon’s books have been known to be “notoriously unfilmable”, so if anything, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson should be lauded for his ambition at even trying. Yet that is hardly justification to forgive this muddled and overlong mess of a movie, which is the first P.T. Anderson film that we dare say is just plain boring.
Published back in 2009, Pynchon’s book was a noir goof that riffed off the Los Angeles detective genre of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. The book told of private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello, who gets caught up in a missing persons case when he helps out a former flame that suspects her current lover, a powerful real estate developer, is being set up by his English wife and her lover. Soon into the investigation, Doc is labelled a murder suspect after he wakes up in the Southern Californian desert next to the body of a bodyguard of the developer’s.
That one paragraph worth about half an hour of screen time is probably the movie at its most coherent. Like its lead character played by Joaquin Phoenix, the rest of it seems to unfold in its own marijuana-induced stupor. As Doc digs deeper, he encounters sadistic cops, corrupt cops, druggies, new-age spiritualists, hookers, Aryan Brotherhood bikers, Black Power ex-cons, dentists, and Nixon politicos. It isn’t the cultural polyglot of eclectic characters that we mind; rather, it is the storylines that they inhabit which we take offense with.
We won’t try describing every one of the shaggy sprawl of plotlines to you; suffice to say that it flits from Josh Brolin’s flat-topped cop with macho swagger to Owen Wilson’s saxophonist triple agent to a pansexual masseuse to a pot-smoking district attorney to an Indo-Chinese heroin cartel of tax-dodging dentists (one of which is played by Martin Short). To give credit where it’s due, Anderson approaches his source material reverently, in particular in retaining the assembly line of eccentrics in Pynchon’s novel; unfortunately, that devotion ultimately proves alienating onscreen, leaving his audience going from one kooky character or situation to the next with little continuity or purpose. The combination of so many disparate parts is baffling to say the least, and self-indulgent to the point of being silly and frustrating at the same time.
Fans of Pynchon’s work will probably tell you to read the book, or in this case watch the film, with either eye on the narrative is missing the point, for the writer’s brilliance really lay in his prose, characters and distinctly offbeat scenarios. Just as he did with the plotlines, Anderson keeps with Pynchon in all three respects – lifting paragraphs of prose for his characters to blabber as if in a heightened state of disorientation; giving his characters names such as Buddy Tubeside, Sauncho Smilax, Adrian Prussia, Japonica Fenway, and Petunia Leeway; and importing wholesale the treasure trove of jokes from the book, such as Brolin’s detective shouting for Swedish pancakes in a Japanese restaurant or his oral fixation of fellating chocolate-covered bananas. There are occasional good moments, bolstered by Robert Elswit’s cinematography of the gorgeous period detail, but these are too few and too far in between for a movie that stretches over a torturous two and a half hours.
Not even a game cast can quite redeem the movie’s tedium. Phoenix, who last collaborated with Anderson on ‘The Master’, keeps up a suitably off-balance act to centre the film and hold it together, but he doesn’t have the comic timing to make each scene stand out. Brolin fares much better as the no-nonsense cop who turns out to be both friend and (uneasy) friend to Phoenix’s Doc, the former’s deadpanning utterly amusing as he bulldozes his way through the uneasy truths of the latter’s case. Deserving of special mention however is Katherine Waterston, who shares a pivotal intimate scene with Doc that is mesmerising to watch in its poignancy and emotional candour.
But watching Waterston nude is hardly enough payback for a movie that comes off meandering and eventually pointless. There is no hook to the mystery, no logic in the procedural and only a modicum of occasional pleasure in its sheer absurdity. It is a satire all right, but one that rings hollow for far too long. Now that Anderson has taken his lark in the park with Pynchon, let’s hope he finds his way out of the drug-addled haze.
(Ponderous and pointless, Paul Thomas Anderson’s hippie noir has its occasional absurdist pleasures, but is largely just a bore)
Review by Gabriel Chong