I know, I know, the web site Rotten Tomatoes is filled with critical praises for this misbegotten film — a cool 73% favorable as I write these words. So how can that be?
Explaining the critical swoon over movies by a filmmaker his buddy-critics like to refer to as PTA is something I can’t manage. While acknowledging a certain dramatic flair and a keen sense of time and place in films such as “Magnolia” and “Boogie Nights,” his increasingly pretentious, if not portentous, oeuvre has since those earlier films left me cold.
Cold but at least responsive to actors, certain sequences that come off well and even sometimes the look of such films as “There Will be Blood” or “The Master.”
But “Inherent Vice” is a forlorn misfire in all respects. Unlike many of Anderson’s films, this one doesn’t even exhibit a believable feel for what is a very particular time and place — Los Angeles in the counterculture haze of the 1970s.
The model for post-modern noir exists and, indeed, those films run circles around “Vice.” Back in ‘70s itself, Robert Altman made a splendid riff on Raymond Chandler with an indelible deconstruction of his detective yarn “The Long Goodbye.” The Coen Brothers did their own take on Chandler with “The Big Lebowski” in 1998, a film well deserving of its cult following.
Hell, even Shane Black’s under-appreciated noir comedy “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” makes “Vice” look foolishly arch and coy.
Where these films were smart, sassy and, more importantly, made by people who actually appreciated film noir, Anderson merely uses the tropes of the genre’s shady corruption and human venality as elements of farce.
Laying the worst of ‘70s pop-culture lingo and ‘40s-era corruption on as thick as an oil slick on a duck pond, Anderson sends his white-knight detective, addled with enough drugs to put most people into a coma, out on a fool’s errand among real-estate tycoons, thuggish cops, crazed dentists, free-love babes, Asian hookers, Nazi bikers, Nixonian politicos and cultist of every kind.
The film derives from the only novel by Thomas Pynchon to have so far been translated to the big screen. That shaggy-dog comic novel was generally well received in 2009 but was hit by some critics for its lack of genuine suspense where nothing much is at stake.
This carries over into the movie’s own aimlessness.
The problem begins with casting. Pynchon’s hero is one Larry “Doc” Sportello, a pothead private eye living a life of a dissolute driftwood in the fictional L.A. beach community of Gordita Beach.
A seductive old flame, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), turns up one night asking his professional help to foil a plot to commit her lover, a real-estate mogul, to a mental institute by his wife and her lover.
Indeed the story doesn’t get out of the first act before several more people “hire” Doc to investigate or find people connected to this real-estate guy, whose name is Mickey Wolfmann. By the way, Mickey himself soon disappears.
So the movie plunges into talky, nearly actionless sequences determined to convolute the plot with so many unnecessary subplots and minor characters that not only does it make little sense but what exactly Doc wants to do at any given moment disappears into a cloud of pot smoke.
Any actor would be challenged to anchor all this nonsense in the clown-like role of Doc. He must be a shrewd buffoon and self-conscious freak in his own right. To do this any kind of justice, one needs an actor with a comic sensibility.
But Joaquin Phoenix is an actor of such surpassing strangeness to begin with — perfect for an “outsider” role such as in “Her” — that the character loses the audience in the first scene. His Doc sometimes seems like a minor character handed his own movie, a Rosencrantz or Guilderstern ordered to play the prince.
What is needed is self-deprecating lunacy such as Jeff Bridges brought to “The Big Lebowski” or what Elliot Gould gave a stoner Phillip Marlowe in Altman’s film. Perhaps Robert Downey Jr. might have pulled it off in today’s era but the role certainly is not within Phoenix’s wheelhouse.
With no center to his film, Anderson keeps piling on incidents and characters to wearying effect. Nothing is ever at stake; no end game, no desired outcome, ever appears on the horizon.
An insanely long cast of characters jam the screen: Among them Owen Wilson’s former heroin addict working undercover for various anti-subversive groups, Reese Witherspoon’s shifty deputy D.A., Benicio Del Toro’s fish-out-of-water maritime attorney, Martin Short’s coked-up dentist; Hong Chau’s duplicitous hooker and Sasha Pieterse’s perpetual runaway teen.
The only one to emerge somewhat from the mire is Josh Brolin’s LAPD detective Bigfoot, the name apparently reflecting his method of entering rooms. A bad cop who plays good cops on TV shows like “Adam-12,” he roams through the story, sucking on chocolate-covered bananas, as Doc’s nemesis, wanting so badly to become the hero of the story but too much of a badass to pull that off.
A narration, designed apparently to introduce the cadence of Pynchon’s prose into the film, gets delivered by a minor female character assuming the voice of an omniscient observer. Since she herself appears (then disappears) from time to time who or what she is meant to represent is never clear.
Then again, that phrase “never clear” can be attached to just about all subplots or characters in the movie. There runs throughout a potential villainous organization called the Golden Fang. But Pynchon/Anderson make certain it’s never clear if this is a mysterious schooner carrying contraband cargo or a tax dodge set up by dentists.
The movie overdoses on period slanguage, psychedelia, weed-induced paranoia and bad costumes and hair styles such as Doc’s shaggy hair and overgrown mutton-chop sideburns.
Its point is that there is no point. Or at least none that PTA cares to share with his viewers.
The movie wears its deliberate vagueness as a badge of pride. A parade of terrific actors in hammy roles seems like a bad joke but who are you to laugh at — the actors, the smug filmmakers or maybe yourself for bearing witness to all this? Not to mention sacrificing 148 minutes of your life.
Opens: December 12, 2014 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: Warner Bros. presents in association with IAC Films a JoAnne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film Co. production
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Eric Roberts, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Martin Donovan
Director/screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
Based on a novel by: Thomas Pynchon
Producers: JoAnne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi
Executive producers: Scott Rudin, Adam Somner
Director of photography: Robert Elswit
Production designer: David Crank
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Costume designer: Mark Bridges
Editor: Leslie Jones
R rating, 148 minutes