Holy crap, this film is a mess.
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the few modern auteurs who I’d line up to see do next to anything. From Boogie Nights and Magnoliato There Will Be Blood he has a knack for intimate epics, getting the absolute most out of actors and taking his audiences exactly nowhere near where they’re expecting to go. He’s among the finest filmmakers of his generation. And while some of his ‘lesser’ works, like the odd-yet-effective Punch Drunk Love, or the heinously disturbing psychological mindfuck The Master don’t hit the same highs as his other works, there’s always something worth checking out.
But the dense plotting, multitudinous characters and meandering pace, Inherent Vice is a troubling misstep. It took further research after seeing the film to actually figure out huge swathes of what actually happened in the film – and I’m sure it would have been less baffling had more than a third of the lines been legible.
Let me rephrase: the film would be infinitely better if it were possible to understand more than one in three of the words that Joaquin Phoenix delivers. Seriously, he’s mostly indecipherable throughout. An actor’s choice, perhaps – the character, Doc is stoned to the gills most of the time so in all likelihood he’s not going to be the paragon of clarity. But Phoenix (and, tellingly enough, Anderson allows it) takes us on some sort of elocution safari where most of what he says is as garbled and slurred as though a drunk Marlon Brando was delivering the lines, circa-Last Tango in Paris.
So an already dense, convoluted plot (narrated not by the lead but an ancillary character, who would have no means by which to acquire the insight she seems to have here) is made even more impenetrable by a lead who seemingly wants to speak into his chin. Moot point, really. What the film aspires to is the kind of neo-noir, a throwback to full colour LA private detective stories like Chinatown, or Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Even taking a weed-infused comic bent to it is not new terrain, what with the Coen brothers having done so successfully in 1998 with The Big Lebowski. There are moments which hint at greatness, and every shot is artfully framed and composed. The cast is impressive to say the least, but there seems to be infinite potential on screen, yet little is done with it.
It is an impressive cast, and Phoenix does have his moments. As does James Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro and Reese Witherspoon. But there’s little else to write home about. The costumes and sets are period-authentic and evocative, and the music choices on the soundtrack aren’t just the stock-standards of the late 60s-early 70s you’d tend to find in throwback films of this ilk.
I’ve not read Thomas Pynchon’s novel, upon which the film is based. This is the first time one of his works has been adapted, and I can’t say that I’m champing at the bit for a second. They say that even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, but in this case all I see is the times it’s getting it wrong.