Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice) occupies the ground halfway between the calm competence of Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington in Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995) and the affable idiocy of the Dude (Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, 1998). Of course, as L.A.P.I.s go (that’s Los Angeles private detective, for the acronymicly-challenged), you could also compare Doc to Jake Gittes or Ed Exley (I know he’s really a cop) or any number of Humphrey Bogart creations, but I chose not to because they don’t have cool nicknames like Easy or the Dude. And cool is the best thing Inherent Vice has going for it.
(OK – no more parentheses.) (I promise.)
Paul Thomas Anderson, among the most inventive and important American directors today, has chronicled the myth and the magic of LA – even LA circa 1980, when Inherent Vice takes place – already, and quite frankly, he has done it much better. Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999) are towering achievements that capture the city of angels better than any other modern film. Beside them, Inherent Vice , adapted from Thomas Pynchon, feels like a lark. Indeed, it is almost trivial. But at close to two and half hours, it’s a long bit of trivia.
Doc is a stoner detective. Early on, he gets sucked into a nasty bit of intrigue at the behest of ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). His investigation will run him into a wide assortment of characters, some of whom vanish as quickly as they appear. This is certainly not new territory. Chandler, Spillane and Cain are built on this kind of journey. Dangerous guys and even more dangerous broads. You can’t trust anyone. The answer is right in front of you if you can just keep out all the noise. Generally, the best of these types of movies – Howard Hawks’ adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1946) comes to mind – offer an intricate puzzle of double and triple-crosses. But, here’s the key, no matter how intricate, they give the audience some sort of road map. In Chinatown, we always know that Jake Gittes is trying to figure out who killed Hollis Mulwray. If we know what the hero is trying to do, we can have some rooting interest from scene to scene. We may find out we were wrong about motivations and good guy/bad guy impulses. But at least we could invest while we watched.
Anderson does not allow that in Inherent Vice. It is just too convoluted. I still can’t say for sure what Doc was ever looking for. I suppose he was looking for Shasta, but to be honest, I never really cared much about that. That may be the ultimate problem with the movie. Sharp and funny on a moment by moment basis, I don’t think I ever really cared about any of the characters, and I never understood the story well enough to care about what might happen next.
If that sounds like serious damnation, you can chalk part of it up to the fact that I admire Anderson so much. Even the unsuccessful Punch-Drunk Love (2002) was ambitious. Inherent Vice does not feel ambitious. It feels like a talented group of artists treading on some pretty hallowed ground and not doing anything new with it.
And there is plenty of talent to go around. Phoenix strikes a very good chord, finding the sad-sack humour in Doc while never letting him become cartoonish – quite a feat given his sideburns. And Josh Brolin is sensational as borderline psycho cop Bigfoot Bjornsen. You can choose your favourites from a dozen or so other first-rate supporting characters. I personally liked Joanna Newsom and Benicio Del Toro best out of the rest, but there are plenty more. The combination of Pynchon and Anderson leads to some marvellous dialogue, and Anderson always makes his movies interesting to look at. This is not a bad movie by any stretch.
But it’s not great either, and when it comes to Paul Thomas Anderson, “not great” doesn’t cut it.