With his latest, director Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most unique and lauded voices in modern American cinema, has really gone out on a limb. It’s some undertaking to tackle the sprawling, rarely coherent Thomas Pynchon whose work has never been previously converted to the big screen for good reason. ‘Untranslatable’ is the most often cited reason for the absence, but Anderson, ever seeking to expand his range as an artist, has taken a shot at delving into Pynchon’s supposedly most accessible world, that of early 1970’s LA in his more recent novel Inherent Vice.
That the director sought to continue this next leg of his filmic odyssey with Joaquin Phoenix – so stunning in The Master (2012) – is no bad thing at all. Phoenix took Freddie Quell, an inherently, compellingly flawed character in that film and turned him into a monstrous, frail being full of raging complexities. Here, tapping into the retro slacker spirit of the apathetically doom-laden, he effortlessly embodies Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a laid back hippie private eye whose ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) lands on his doorstep one night to ask a favour. Soon Doc is chasing his tail through a labyrinth of possible corruption of all sorts as people go walkabout and bodies turn up. Doc’s nemesis, as he navigates the city’s sleazy, tripped-out late night underbelly, is a lumbering detective, Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (played with utter relish by Josh Brolin, in possibly his finest hour to date).
Brimming with cartoonish, eccentric characters and a shape-shifting mystery plot to which Anderson is sometimes a little too betrothed, the film proves to be a sprawling, colourful jaunt via a time machine to an era preoccupied with chemically enhanced consciousness and far less with logic and coherence. The mechanics of the ever-percolating plot work both for and against the film’s overall impact. It often feels like becoming a random, incoherent trawl through L.A. with a plethora of diversions to keep Doc guessing at the fleeting, mysterious impunities of life. And yet as a representative glimpse into the jumbled mind of its main character and his associates, it works wonderfully well.
Sometimes, however, you just wish Anderson had let himself completely off the leash and thrown Pynchon’s source –as quote-worthy as some of his best dialogue is – into a waste bin. So many outstanding moments – many in which Doc and Bigfoot are brought together – hint at the further hilarity that might have been explored. A phone call scene in which Bigfoot’s berating wife runs rough-shod over her physically imposing husband is just one classic case-in-point. Somehow, despite being somewhat stymied by Pychon’s overactive narrative doodling, Anderson is able to burrow beneath the smokescreens to uncover the unlikely heart and soul of the story, often employing his deceptively long takes to give his actors manoeuvring room.
Perhaps the pacing will be too leisurely for some and the ride over-crammed with inconsequential ramblings, but there’s an offbeat love story to be treasured here and another of Anderson’s flawlessly assembled casts to breathe life into it all. Many well-known faces, like Benecio Del Toro and Reece Witherspoon, vanish as quickly as they appear. Phoenix and Brolin are the standouts, though the intermittent presence and voiceover of Joanna Newson as Doc’s subtly incisive muse and spirit guide deserves special mention. Inherent Vice (2014) may not come close to Anderson’s finest work – in fact it may be close to his most minor effort to date – yet most directors would kill to produce something of this quality in their careers.