Paul Thomas Anderson has been responsible for some of the most exciting and challenging films of recent times – Magnolia, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, The Master... cinematic masterpieces one and all. What then are we to make of his latest offering, based upon a novel by Thomas Pynchon, a drug soaked, paranoia fuelled ramble through the minds of a bunch of disreputable, low life residents of California in the year of our Lord, 1970? The main question that kept occurring to me throughout was ‘why?’ The second was ‘What the…?’ Because though it grieves me to say it, this film is an incoherent mess that can only be deemed a shattering disappointment.
Doc Sportillo (Joaquin Phoenix) is a permanently stoned PI, operating out of the back of a dentist’s surgery and showing none of the requisite skills you might reasonably associate with that role. He’s approached by his ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), now stepping out with the mysterious property tycoon Mickey Wolfmann. She informs him that something strange is going down and asks Sportillo to do some snooping on her behalf. There’s also the little matter of a fugitive saxophone player (Owen Wilson) a mysterious yacht called The Golden Fang and a buttoned-down police officer (Josh Brolin) who seems to have no higher objective in life than to beat Sportillo up every now and then. I’d like to offer bit more information on the actual story, but the baffling jumble of odd happenings and misadventures that ensue are frankly mystifying. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that nearly every character talks in a mumbling monotone, that Sportillo seems incapable of doing anything until he’s had yet another joint and that random characters appear and disappear like the figments of an opium dream.
On the plus side, the era is convincingly evoked, a whole team of talented actors do their best with what’s on offer and the cinematography echoes those pre digital days of the decade that fashion forgot – but at over two and a half hours long, the story soon runs out of steam and leaves us floundering in a sea of bafflement with very little information to help us float. If this film resembles any other it’s Polanksi’s Chinatown, with perhaps a spoonful of The Big Heat thrown in for good measure, but Inherent Vice is simply not in the same league as either of those classics. It’s (dare I say it) a bit of a bore.
File this one under M for ‘Missed Opportunity.’ What a shame.