Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has been on such a long, productive run (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”) that it was inevitable he’d mess up one day.
While you can’t categorize “Inherent Vice” as an outright disaster, it spends an awful lot of time going nowhere in particular. Mostly it spreads around lots of stoner whimsey while wasting the efforts of a terrific cast.
It’s overlong, underpopulated with anything like real characterizations and — perhaps most frustrating of all — it’s a mystery yarn so uninvolving that 10 minutes after seeing it I could no longer recall who dunnit…or what they done.
Critics describe Inherent Vice as the most reader friendly of Thomas Pynchon’s dense, hallucinogenic novels.
As compared to what? A trigonometry textbook?
It’s a riff on the classic L.A. detective yarn, set in the late 1960s and offering as our private eye protagonist a ganja-addled, sandal-wearing doofus.
“Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, sleepy-eyed and moving at half speed) is a beach-dwelling sleuth with offices in a free health clinic. He’s visited one night by his former girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), a one-time flower-power love bunny who is now the mistress of the ruthless Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), L.A.’s most celebrated real estate developer.
Shasta tearfully asks Doc’s help in stopping a conspiracy by Wolfmann’s wife and her lover to have him committed to a mental institution. Doc — who for all his pharmaceutical excesses works to maintain his integrity — assents for old time’s sake.
But then both Wolfmann and Shasta go missing, and Doc finds himself dealing with coke-snorting dentist Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), killer Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie), and a sax-playing junkie (Owen Wilson) who was declared dead but is now back among the living. Not to mention the Golden Fang, a vast drug-smuggling cartel.
Periodically Doc crosses paths with his longtime nemesis “Bigfoot” Bjornson (a movie-stealing Josh Brolin), a thick-necked, flat-topped LA police detective who hates hippies and never wastes an opportunity to violate a civil right. Bigfoot spends much of his time fellating a frozen chocolate-dipped banana.
Our man also hobnobs with his lawyer (Benicio del Toro) and his current squeeze, a junior D.A. (Reese Witherspoon).
Some individual scenes in “Inherent Vice” are mildly diverting, with a sort of off-kilter “Big Lebowski” goofiness. Alas, it doesn’t last.
The recreation of Sixties’ Los Angeles is practically documentary, from Doc’s world-class muttonchop whiskers to his lime-green telephone and costuming choices that instantly identify characters as part of the dropout or square worlds.
The soundtrack is heavy on trippy, acid-inspired doodling.
But Anderson has given us a meandering, shaggy-dog story that never grabs our interest and which simply dribbles away beneath a cloud of cannibis smoke.