The business term “inherent vice” means anything you can’t avoid. Eggs break. Chocolate melts.
That sort of inevitability seems to color every Paul Thomas Anderson film. Critics will fall all over themselves to praise the effort, no matter how sloppy or impenetrable the result.
Once upon a time, he actually deserved the adulation. Anderson made “Boogie Nights,” one of the best movies of the 1990s. He followed it up with “Magnolia,” one of the most interesting movies of the 2000s. Now with “Inherent Vice,” he has delivered one of the most disappointing movies of the 2010s. It’s a disaster of storytelling. A song with no melody. A joke missing the punch line.
Judging from the press materials, it appears the writer/director was aiming for “The Big Lebowski” meets “Chinatown.” But Anderson can’t capitalize on a colorful cast, a fertile setting and source material from an iconic writer. Hard to believe Thomas Pynchon must suffer through this as his first-ever adaptation for the big screen. Welcome to Hollywood, sucker!
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Nothing jump-starts a crime caper like a six-minute mumbled conversation in a living room. Here is where we’re introduced to Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a stoner private eye living in the perpetual haze of 1970 California. (Coincidentally, that’s the same year and place where Anderson was born.)
Doc’s former girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) arrives to explain how her rich, married boyfriend is the potential victim of a scheme to imprison him in a mental institution. Now he has disappeared, and she wants Doc to track him down — or something like that.
Fortunately, another random flower child (Joanna Newsom) barges into the audio as a narrator, explaining how Shasta has so much “sorrow in her voice.” Neat trick, considering she’s never in the room to hear this exchange.
From there, Doc stumbles into an L.A. noir underground of Asian hookers, hippie cults, drug cartels, runaway teens and a coked-up dentist (Martin Short). All throughout he’s harassed by brutish frenemy “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a buzz-cut cop who would rather be performing on TV.
But each scene introduces a new character with little explanation, all but abandoning the previous new face that was just presented. It’s like that “Too Many Cooks” video minus the entertainment value.
Meanwhile, Doc — who at least looks period-perfect in his mutton chops and denim — wanders around in a continual snipe hunt. At a certain point, the movie loses track of what he’s trying to accomplish. Tough to root for the hero to solve a mystery when there’s no clear mystery to be solved.
This enigmatic narrative carries right through the finale, as Doc makes an improbable sacrifice for a character who seems like just another arbitrary walk-on in this miserable flick.
Anderson’s preceding film, “The Master,” split audiences (and fellow critics) because it worked better as a collection of individual moments than as a functional story. While that Oscar nominee was stronger than “Inherent Vice,” it already exposed the waning of Anderson’s abilities.
Both films share a real problem with motivation. There’s just no logical reason for the characters to behave the way they do, other than for cinematic convenience or to inject more hipster quirkiness. Take Bigfoot, for example. The LAPD officer’s scenes with Doc veer from super-hostile to jokey to indifferent to borderline insane. It’s like they’re always meeting for the first time under different circumstances.
And it wouldn’t be an Anderson project without ample and exploitative female nudity — in this case, a full-frontal monologue by Waterston (daughter of actor Sam Waterston). How does this lingering display advance the plot? Trick question: There is no plot.
Rated R | Time: 2:28