In 1970 Los Angeles, Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a perma-stoned private detective, hired to investigate the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, a wealthy, married property mogul. At the same time, Doc is hired to find a recently released ex-con and a woman’s missing, presumed dead, husband. By accident or design, these cases intersect and Doc must work to resolve them, all whilst being hassled by Detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), and the stridently anti-hippy LAPD.
Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, this is the seventh film by Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker of considerable talent with an interesting, if not always accessible, back catalogue. So it is surprising that a movie that appeared to be his most conventional story since Magnolia should turn out to be so confusing and hard to fathom.
It’s difficult not to draw some comparisons to The Big Lebowski, as both feature stoned protagonists negotiating their way through an ‘are they/aren’t they’ missing-person plot. But Inherent Vice lacks the laughs and snappy dialogue of the Coen Brothers’ classic. Setting itself up as a screwball caper, this is a largely humour-free affair, and the dialogue is a particular problem, being often mumbled and extremely hard to follow.
Central to the film is a very awkward voiceover, which, in lieu of any genuine plot movement, serves only as a clunky expository device. And with a gruelling run time in excess of two hours, there is a lot of fat that could have been trimmed here.
Despite its problems, it’s hard to find fault with the performances. Joaquin Phoenix takes an appropriately laconic approach to Doc, and the viewer is certainly invited to like him, if not able to understand him. Owen Wilson is reliably charming as Coy Harlingen, the back-from-dead missing husband, and indeed much of what remains watchable in Inherent Vice could be mostly attributed to the central performances. But the usually excellent Josh Brolin is hampered by a one-dimensional character, leaving him to alternate between two modes: ‘angry’ and ‘more angry’.
Things are further troubled by the fact the characters simply do not resonate. Doc’s motives are not believable, since he’s never offered money for his detective services, and his relationships don’t feel strong or genuine enough for him to be doing any of this out of the goodness of his heart. The confusion is further compounded by too many characters with bizarre sounding names, which don’t register when casually mentioned in dialogue, leading to the plot becoming even more muddled when they appear in the latter stages of the picture.
Whether this general air of confusion should be attributed to Pynchon or Anderson is up for debate, as what works within the format of a novel has been proven many times to not necessarily work in the format of a movie. But what is certain is that in order for a detective story to work, more so than in any other genre, the plot must be coherent. Inherent Vice tries to get by on strength of character, but just can’t manage it.
Worst, and most disappointing of all, is that the movie feels like it is being deliberately obtuse. As if its intention is to obfuscate the plot and make things hard on the viewer, and the audience should feel silly for coming into the cinema expecting to be given the tools to understand what is going on. If Inherent Vice soothed this confusion with some genuine humour, or interesting characters, the result might not have ended up so tedious.
THE REEL SCORE: 3/10