After possibly the shortest break yet in his decade-spanning career, critically-favoured independent filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson returns with another slice of the firmly bizarre. An Oscar favourite in recent years, any and all of Anderson’s films have possessed the power to turn heads, but with his latest seeing something of a return to the off-beat comedy of his early works, this is perhaps his most noteworthy in years.
The first ever authorised adaptation of a novel by the notoriously secretive writer Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice dives head-first into the 70s-set, drug-addled exploits of hippie detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a struggling PI with a penchant for wide-brimmed hats and severely annoying others. When Doc accepts the case of a missing businessman from a former girlfriend, his life begins to gradually spiral out of control, sending him further and further down a never-ending rabbit-hole of aryan assassins, undead musicians and international drug smuggling rings. It is, quite literally, just as crazy as it sounds.
In fact, in part due to this distinct craziness, what becomes very clear within mere seconds of the film’s opening is just how much of a Paul Thomas Anderson movie this really is. Pynchon’s wandering yet clearly brainy prose seems to fit Anderson’s distinct filmmaking style with total ease, almost as if they were made for each other. Long, meandering monologues that feel as if they have been lifted word-for-word from Pynchon’s supposed masterwork, slide neatly into place amongst Anderson’s ludicrously stylish set-up, creating a picture that feels nothing less than insanely cool from beginning to end.
A large part of what helps this work however is Inherent Vice’s seemingly endless stream of kooky characters, namely its controlling force, the beach-born detective Doc. Phoenix’s lead is a continuous delight, powering the film almost single-handedly with a winning blend of deep-seated despair and general buffoonery. Although something of an unreliable guide through the film’s convoluted plotting, between his witty throwbacks and frequently hilarious freak-outs, Doc is very much a cult figure in the making, challenged only by Josh Brolin’s straight-laced hippy-hating cop ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen. Whereas it’s Phoenix who maintains Inherent Vice’s chaotic narrative, it’s in fact Brolin that’s treated to the best lines, whilst an eclectic cast that boasts the likes of Reece Witherspoon and Owen Wilson (amongst others) always keeps the surprises rolling on through. Anderson’s power to attract the best talent around shines here more than ever.
However, the true fate of Anderson’s Inherent Vice really just comes down to the age-old question of taste. To some, the film’s nomadic structure and general inconsistency will prove to be something of an irritation, whilst others (namely Anderson’s loyal followers) will more likely welcome it with open arms. This isn’t so much a question of style over substance but more the complete over-embellishment of both: any attempts to closely follow the film’s wacky plotting will most likely fly straight out of the metaphorical window the very second its gorgeous aesthetics truly come in to play. There is simply too much going on here to warrant the total appreciation of everything in just one viewing, and this, to some, will prove irksome.
Ultimately though, Inherent Vice exists as but another example of Paul Thomas Anderson’s limitless talents behind the camera. Technically speaking, the director’s work has never been sounder, producing arguably the most faithful adaptation of Pynchon’s wildly provocative style possible. As a slice of entertainment cinema however, there are issues to be had, especially as far as story is concerned. As usual, the elusive American filmmaker will likely divide audiences with his latest effort.
Inherent Vice (2014), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is released in UK cinemas by Warner Bros., Certificate 15.