Paul Thomas Anderson has been threatening to go rogue for a while now. Punch Drunk Love, billed as a rom-com, intermittently slipped into the kind of dark humour only Todd Solondz dare goes. The Master began to loosen the strands of conventional narrative, but kept bums on seats with its critique of cultish behaviour and Oscar-friendly performances. Inherent Vice goes one step further. Based on a demanding book by Thomas Pynchon – a notoriously difficult writer – Anderson’s adaptation of 70s-era noir stubbornly remains faithful to its source material.
Inherent Vice’s premise is typical crime fiction. Doc Sportello, a bumbling private investigator, played by the irrepressible Joaquim Phoenix, is drawn into a web of deceit and drug smuggling by an ex-girlfriend. What unfolds is an enigmatic, yet languidly paced, crime yarn. It’s as if Doc’s incessant drug haze saturates the plot, leaving it devoid of focused storytelling. Anderson’s consciously elusive style will alienate audiences. Emotional investment has no place in this lurid, obscure tale.
As sheer entertainment, Inherent Vice falls short. The film’s trailer promised a comic romp similar to The Big Lebowski, but for its considerable run time, the humour is sparse. Anderson, meticulous as ever, clearly relishes the challenge of Pynchon’s book, and the film is evidently a genuine labour of love. Unfortunately, genius and solipsism make common bed fellows: there is a lack of spirit and vigour here, leaving the viewer with the cinematic equivalent of indigestion.
While the film is disappointingly detached, 70s America is expertly realised and the film is a technical success. The subtlety of the narration, music, and the soft focus, slightly off-centre camera work all perfectly capture a time and place. Anderson has created a hermetically sealed world, without resorting to glaring cultural iconography or a predictably congested soundtrack. The cast deliver strong performances, especially Phoenix and Josh Brolin – and the innately funny Martin Short hogs his scenes, bringing some short-lived levity to proceedings.
The writing itself is on point, with the dialogue feeling organic, Coen-esque at times. However, character motivation and the film’s timeline are slaves to misfiring memory and distorted perceptions, making for puzzling and at times opaque interactions between characters. Because the film avoids full climax and resolution, one is left frustrated knowing Anderson’s priority here is exercising his skill as a fine-combed, fastidious director. Expect a detailed but largely unrewarding experience.
Inherent Vice is released nationwide on 30th January 2015.
Watch the trailer for Inherent Vice here: