Does a film necessarily have to make absolute sense to entertain? That’s the lingering question as the neon-hued credits roll on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, a 70s Los Angeles-set pulp detective yarn that unfolds in a fuggy haze of herbal smoke.
There’s a sense that for Joaquin Phoenix’s Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, the conspiracy at the heart of Inherent Vice is pretty slippery, too. A pot-smoking private investigator who has an office located at the back of a beige doctor’s surgery for some reason, he’s drawn into a tangled web of corruption, drug running and other intrigues by an old flame, the wayward Shasta (Katherine Waterston).
Shasta initially asks Doc to help find her current – and now missing – boyfriend, property tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). But when Shasta also goes missing, Doc finds himself in the middle of the kind of knotty yarn that would make Raymond Chandler blush.
There are neo-Nazi bikers, a league of dodgy dentists, drying-out communes and colourful neckties with pictures of naked ladies on them. As we follow Doc through an increasingly weird sequence of encounters, a revolving door of shady characters come and go. Josh Brolin is one of the stand-outs as the four-square, self-aggrandising LAPD cop who looks and acts like a buffalo packed into a grey suit.
Among the extended cast, which also includes Michael K Williams, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro and a characteristically quirky Martin Short, Phoenix remains the lynchpin. With his mutton-chop sideburns, scraggy hair and bloodshot, perpetually bewildered eyes, he plays one of the unlikeliest would-be detectives since Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. A refugee from the 1960s, Doc seems to have stumbled into his vocation entirely by accident, and even as he struggles to hold onto all the plot threads, one thing constantly motivates him: the whereabouts of Shasta, whom he evidently still loves.
Although adapted from the novel by Thomas Pynchon, the hand of the director behind such lengthy period dramas as Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood and The Master is all over Inherent Vice. Anderson has a specific way of setting and letting scenes play out, a jazzy, languid style that is absolutely of a piece with the characters’ rambling, free-wheeling speech. It must be said that certain moments here are as spot-on, laugh-out-loud funny as those in Boogie Nights; many of them are thanks to Phoenix’s expert timing, which is both natural and precisely judged. Many of Inherent Vice’s finest moments spring from Phoenix’s befuddled reactions, or the way flashes of pure intelligence cut through the dusty curtains of his addiction.
There’s a captivating melody to the drawled voice-over, matched by the eclectic score of Anderson’s collaborator on The Master and There Will Be Blood, Jonny Greenwood. In all respects, Inherent Vice is as astutely crafted and attentively detailed as the director’s previous films, even though it is, for the most part, the purest comedy he’s made since Punch Drunk Love.
At the same time, there’s a sense that Anderson’s perhaps a little too in love with the matted weave of Pynchon’s novel. At 148 minutes, Inherent Vice is by no means a short film, and even when compared to There Will Be Blood or The Master, the film feels inordinately long, particularly towards its second half.
Even accepting that this is a purposefully convoluted tale, there are stretches here that feel laboured or simply over-played. The first half is often riotously funny and as intriguing as it is confounding, but as the two-hour mark goes by and the supporting characters are still being introduced, sub-plot fatigue begins to set in. There’s also a sense that, as Inherent Vice rolls to a close, the story at the core of all the conspiracy is actually quite a simple one, obfuscated by an opening scene that is likely to confuse many audience members with its mumbled dialogue and liable to leave them lagging behind the plot for the rest of the movie.
In his previous films, Anderson showed a knack for finding absorbing characters and stories in less obvious places; the porn industry, the oil trade, a post-war cult. Anderson brings us another batch of characters here, but he somehow manages to let them ramble on a little too long for comfort.
Nevertheless, Inherent Vice is admirable for its studied recreation of post-60s Los Angeles, in all its chaos and paranoia, and for its often sublime moments of hilarity. Although not Anderson’s finest film to date, it still contains much to enjoy – not least that magnificent leading turn from Joaquin Phoenix.
Inherent Vice is out in UK cinemas on the 30th January.
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