How cinemagoers choose to receive Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice depends on the category into which they fall. For the casual punter who arrives on a whim hoping to catch whatever is playing, this woozy, tangled and bewildering Californian noir might grate long before its laborious two and half hours are done. On the other hand, surrender to its flow and there are rewards to be had.
Based on Thomas Pynchon’s trippy 2009 novel of the same name, Inherent Vice comes laced with a sense of creeping confusion; it serves up few answers to indecipherable questions. A refusal to settle, to actually tell a story worthy of any audience’s attention, should not, of course, be interpreted as indicative of poor craftsmanship. Anderson represents American cinema’s genius conscience, a genuine aesthete pulling at the edges of the franchise-saturated studio system. Ironically, his relaxed sensibilities and eye for telling tales in so peculiar a manner both elevate and hobble his vision.
In truth, it feels like a picture composed of genre peers’ offcuts: the zanier bits from The Big Lebowski; a couple of scenes in Chinatown lacking logic; undercooked snatches of LA Confidential’s hardboiled patois. Anderson is too much of an individual to rip off others but, for all the originality of his work, this is hardly virgin soil.
The messy plot, set in a 1970s Los Angeles that appears less utopian than grotty, is sticky with the doped fog seeping from stoned private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), the nominal hero of the piece. Sportello operates out of a medical surgery and saunters between small-time cases ever under the influence of his favoured drug. Sandal clad, unhurried, Doc’s meandering existence is upended by the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend, Shasta (a damaged Katherine Waterson), whose relationship with Eric Roberts’s reptilian property magnate, Mickey Wolfmann, has apparently gone south.
Seeking her out, Doc plunges into a world of corruption and subversives, narcs and spooks, finding clarity in his stupor. With the aid of some surprisingly sharp detective skills and the gentle nudging of expositor-cum-subconscious Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), he burrows into a quirky central conspiracy. The gaps are filled intermittently, yet the overriding impression is that Anderson does not want us to grasp all of a story that shifts, idly, from strand to strand. Straggling threads tie up here and there, without really committing to any discernible point. Indeed, this is a film wearing instead the look of a test, one requiring the humble viewer to either tune into its strange rhythms or get up and leave.
More pleasure can be found in the host of thrilling performances, in front of the camera and behind it. Phoenix has never looked as baked as he does here, wide-eyed and affable. There is, however, a glittering keenness beneath the surf-bum exterior that saves him from mere buffoonery; it screams talent.
As the polar opposite of Doc, Josh Brolin outshines even Phoenix as a hard-charging asshole cop who goes by the nickname "Bigfoot" and despises the rumpled PI’s "hippy bastard" social circle. Brolin luxuriates in his character’s suppressed, crew-cut, Nixonesque conservatism, hollering at cooks in Japanese ("MOTTO PANUKEIKU!") and sucking on numerous phallic objects with aplomb. Benicia Del Toro — arguably the only person who knows what’s going on — shows up, too, as Doc’s salty lawyer with the appetite of a sailor.
As a filmmaker, Anderson’s abilities are plainly undeniable. He is an auteur completely in control of his medium and even the harshest critics must admire the confidence with which these hazily manic narrative pit stops are conveyed. Alongside regular cinematographer, Robert Elswit, Anderson reveals panache in the framing, where his cocky visual style seems like a high-end reboot of the 1970s’ grainier moments. This kitsch pre-Boogie Nights palette, which continues to fade in society’s collective memory, is gorgeous to behold.
The most acclaimed entries in the Anderson cannon are that latter ode to porn’s golden era and There Will Be Blood, an angular masterpiece. Unnerving and magnificent, neither could be ignored. Like it or loathe it, buy in or opt out, his latest is just as tricky to disregard.
A version of this article was first published here.