Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s sprawling adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling 2009 novel, Inherent Vice locates a mystery worthy of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe and basically sends in Cheech and Chong to crack the case.
Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who often leaves me cold, does some of his finest work in this picture. Sporting sideburns that outflank even Wolverine’s, he’s Larry “Doc” Sportello, a pothead of a private eye who agrees to help his former squeeze, one Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, trafficking in the same sort of understated acting as pop Sam), come to the aid of her lover, a married millionaire (Eric Roberts) who’s suddenly MIA.
And so off goes Doc to gather clues, receiving limited assistance from his friends (Reese Witherspoon’s assistant D.A., Benicio Del Toro’s attorney), ample interference from a coiled cop (an intense Josh Brolin) and mixed signals from various strangers (Owen Wilson’s surfer dude, Martin Short’s patently bizarre dentist).
With its loopy sensibilities and labyrinthine plot, this ambitious effort has screen antecedents aplenty; they start with Robert Altman’s 1973 The Long Goodbye, starring Elliott Gould as an unkempt Philip Marlowe dropped into the unblinking L.A. of the 1970s. Want a more recent one?
Fine, but you probably won’t like it. Like 2013’s critically and commercially lambasted The Counselor (from the noggin of another literary giant, Cormac McCarthy), Inherent Vice is a freewheeling orgy of misdirection (from Anderson), misunderstanding (from the audience) and Method-tinged emoting (from an eye-popping cast).
It hurtles along from one seemingly tangential situation to the next, all with an insouciant attitude that suggests no one involved really cared whether audience members kept up with the shenanigans or not.
That’s OK: Inherent Vice might be a mess, but it’s a curiously endearing mess, not unlike a shaggy dog that expects to be loved even after it leaves muddy paw prints all over the lush living room carpet.