Director Paul Thomas Anderson has delivered some of the most provocative films of the past 20 years. But occasionally even great artists need a palate cleanser.
Following the weighty, dark brilliance of “The Master” and “There Will Be Blood,” Anderson gives us a loopy, drug-fueled, shaggy-dog, detective story in “Inherent Vice.”
Based on a novel from reclusive, brainy writer Thomas Pynchon, the movie stars Joaquin Phoenix as private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello, who bounces around Los Angeles in 1970 ingesting any and all mind-altering chemicals he comes across.
A cross between Hunter S. Thompson and The Dude from “The Big Lebowski,” Doc is a perpetual victim of circumstance put on the path of a winding noir-ish caper by former lover Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, daughter of actor Sam Waterston).
With so little at stake and a plot that only kind-of-sort-of makes any sense, what Anderson has accomplished is the cinematic equivalent of being stoned (or so I’m told).
Phoenix delivers a dialed-in, bleary-eyed, mush-mouthed performance that is so foggy it could only be given by a clear-headed weirdo.
At every turn, Doc is greeted with a cameo performance that pushes him further into the haze of the plot.
The likes of Eric Roberts, Maya Rudolph, Michael Kenneth Williams, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, and Martin Short give it their all, but don’t have much to do other than playoff Phoenix and try their best to match his bizzaro energy.
The only person who holds his own and actually gets some interesting things to do on his own is Josh Brolin, who plays iron-jawed LAPD Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen.
Bjornsen is a holdover from the Joe Friday “Dragnet” days whose impotent rage has more to do with a dark psychosis than any sort of metaphorical culture clash. Brolin is perfect for this part with a head the crewcut was invented for and more range as an actor than he lets on, this is an award-caliber performance.
Overall, “Inherent Vice” just doesn’t give us much to sink our teeth into, which is surprising coming from Anderson, who has proven with movies like “Boogie Nights” and “Punch-Drunk Love” that even his lighter side carries some weight.
It’s not even an infuriating hot-mess like “Magnolia,” but a so-so movie from Anderson is still better than 95 percent of what storms through the multiplex so I can’t complain too much.
There are enough inspired moments and golden performances here to make “Inherent Vice” a worthwhile adventure, and if anything it is a classic example of a director being a victim of his own success. If anyone has earned the right to take a slight detour, it’s Anderson.
“Inherent Vice” is rated R for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language, and some violence.