It’s fair to say that Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, The Master) has one of the most stellar track records of any director working today but with the number of superb films under his belt, it feels slightly disheartening when he releases a film that is merely good instead of great. That’s the feeling that I was left with during the conclusion of Inherent Vice, his brazenly bizarre adaptation of the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon. While it seems to be the most studiously faithful adaptation that Anderson has done so far, it has a peculiar energy and enough spontaneous moments to allow it to stand on its own as a creative work.
The full story is intentionally indecipherable, so detailing it feels like a bit of a fool’s errand. We open in 1970 on the fictional Gordita Beach, when hippie private investigator Doc Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is visited by his ex-flame Shasta Fey, played by Katherine Waterston. She clues him in on a plot to kidnap her current lover, the wealthy real estate mogul Mickey Wolfman, played by Eric Roberts. Doc’s ensuing investigation spawns a host of idiosyncratic characters who guide us through a plot that almost feels like it’s being made up as it goes along.
There’s no doubt that this willful lack of narrative clarity will frustrate viewers and there were times when I felt out of step as well. More often than not, characters come and go with little introduction and talk about places or people that haven’t been established yet. After a certain amount of time, I generally stopped trying to follow the plot and just enjoyed each scene individually for what it was. Clearly, Anderson is going for more of a vibe than a precisely told story and as a hazy, rose-colored evocation of an era, it rarely misses a beat.
The tone that he creates throughout is a peculiar amalgam of broad slapstick comedy and post-noir mystery, with a touch of nostalgic romance thrown in for good measure. There’s also an unmistakable feeling of paranoia present in the film, most likely an attempt to bring the main character’s drugged-out perspective to the forefront. The stirring score by Jonny Greenwood and the washed out look of Robert Elswit’s cinematography both contribute heavily to Inherent Vice‘s unique sense of style of vision.
It also helps that Anderson has put together a terrific ensemble cast, which also includes Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and a hilariously deadpan Josh Brolin. Amongst all the performances, Phoenix’s is still the standout to me: he brings all the intensity that he normally would for a dramatic role and instead translates it into an energy of endearing goofiness. There’s no doubt that Inherent Vice is a one-of-a-kind trip but I can’t help but feeling that Paul Thomas Anderson is much better suited to direct an original story as opposed to an adaptation, especially one as challenging and singular as this.