Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel and a major attraction at the 2014 New York Film Festival, is a sprawling, complicated showpiece likely to be admired by some and leave others unimpressed. It may have most appeal to those who can’t get enough of Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the odd-ball private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello as he makes his way through a 1970 labyrinth of California weirdoes, drugs, bikers, corruption—you name it.
I’ll tell you upfront that I intensely disliked Anderson’s “The Master” and while I found his “There Will Be Blood” visually impressive and energetic, I thought it was shallow. Although “Inherent Vice” is certainly an eyeful, with assorted amusing moments and nutty takes on its strange characters, I don’t think it amounts to very much given all of the pretentiousness that goes along with it.
Also, there are outright annoyances. The narration by Joanna Newson is in a voice that is grating on the ears. The obligatory femme fatale, Shasta, is played by Katherine Waterston, and her big sex scene with Doc isn’t a turn-on. While running her fingers around a nipple or trying to make sexy use of a leg, she keeps prattling on with insipid dialogue. When Doc finally takes her from the rear, at least it shuts her up for a bit—but not long enough.
The rambling plot involves Shasta informing Doc about the wife of her married boyfriend plotting against her rich cheating husband, Mickey Wolfmann, played by Eric Roberts, who is big in real estate. A constant heavy throughout the film is Josh Brolin as “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, the kind of detective who gives cops a bad name. He’s a nasty piece of work and Doc’s nemesis.
Owen Wilson has a key role as Coy, who is in deep trouble with bad guys and whom Doc feels obligated to save. Others in the large cast include Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, Jena Malone and Benicio Del Toro. I won’t even attempt to explain more of the meandering plot and the plethora of characters involved. If you are so inclined, you can take the plunge yourself.
What Anderson does succeed in doing is to keep the situations spinning and the film looking good, with the kind of wise-ass humor and action that could hold appeal for audiences who enjoy that sort of thing. Roman Polanski did much better with “Chinatatown,” and so did Robert Altman with “The Long Goodbye.” A Warner Bros. release. Reviewed October 27, 2014.