Inherent Vice director Paul Thomas Anderson has long cemented himself as one of cinema’s most intelligent and fascinating filmmakers. What PTA does better than most is tell interesting, deep and immersive stories through the eyes of complicated characters with just a hint of wry humour. There Will Be Blood and The Master both possess underlying black comedy but Anderson’s best work has always kept the comedy at the surface. Think Boogie Nights, Magnolia and never forget this is the filmmaker who has made arguably the only good Adam Sandler movie ever in the shape of Punch-Drunk Love. Adapting Thomas Pynchon’s novel has, for some time, been a pet project for Anderson so does he reach a mellow high or comedown in a horrible withdrawal?
Getting stoned one night private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receives a visit from his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) who asks him to protect her latest squeeze, the real estate developer Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts), from potential foul play. The following day Doc is hired to track down one of Wolfman’s bodyguards which sets him on a collision course with LAPD Detective Bjornsen “Bigfoot” (Josh Brolin). Released back on the streets Doc takes on one more case, because things are not quite complicated enough, and is hired by Hope Harlingen (Jenna Malone) to track down her missing husband Coy (Owen Wilson).
Three cases, are they all connected? The truth is no one really knows and we’re not supposed to care. The mysteries that swirl around Inherent Vice in a fog of weed smoke are little more than wild goose chases with which to loosely stitch this shaggy dog story together. The point, much like a Coen Brothers’ film, is to take us in to this bizarre and weird world in which most of the characters speak little sense but do so with a cartoonish sense of fun it’s hard to find yourself doing anything but grinning.
Anderson is clearly taking a few influences from the likes of Chinatown, the real estate developer deals being one such example, but more pressingly Robert Altman’s stunning adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. The ‘70s period setting helps but it’s Anderson’s sense of lazy, blue sky, lethargic pacing accompanied by smart yet meandering dialogue that keeps you interested.
It doesn’t always work, at times the running time feels as though Anderson has become too seeped in Pynchon’s drug influenced pros but for the most part there is something quintessentially Anderson about it; that ability to utterly capture a bygone era. As he did with There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights Anderson creates a world and immerses you in it, warts and all. It just so happens that this particular world is often surreal and a little whimsical.
Although Robert Downey Jr was touted for the part of Doc it’s hard to imagine him injecting as much understated humour into it as Joaquin Phoenix. Downey Jr’s character would have been cartoonish whereas Phoenix has an ability to blend in with the background, often just a confused look, something he and the viewer is likely to do a lot, perfectly capturing the comedy of the moment in its simplest form. The rest of the characters are all seen fleetingly but Brolin is typically gruff and bullish while Katherine Waterson brings a wonderfully angelic floaty feeling to Shasta. Her presence often a calming balm to Doc’s otherwise paranoid existence.
For those who have struggled with Anderson’s work to date this is unlikely to be a gateway drug but Inherent Vice continues to prove that this director is Class A quality.