After There Will Be Blood and The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson deserved to take a break, didn’t he? He pulled off a similar lark after Boogie Nights and Magnolia when he directed “his version” of an Adam Sandler film with Punch -Drunk Love. Much like the main character Doc Sportello has to dig deeper and deeper for the truth in this hippy noir, viewers have to dig deep to find any of screenwriter Anderson’s trademark themes in Inherent Vice. Maybe there’s something about makeshift dysfunctional families here? Having never read Thomas Pynchon’s source material, I can only assume all the darkly hilarious dope-fuelled and sometimes absurd banter is pealed straight from his novel (especially Joanna Newsom’s most pleasing to the ear voice-over work) as I felt and heard none of Anderson here.
This is a true adaptation handled with artistic care. Where one does find the director Anderson is in the visuals, pacing and music. Longtime collaborator Robert Elswit evocatively photographs this Gordita Beach 1970 set rambling comic-mystery with gritty stock, soft blues and hints of sunset orange. He does special wonders with the beautiful actresses in their groovy and revealing period garb and make-up (look at those pores!). Anderson peppers in his always great taste in period music, while Jonny Greenwood provides a score unlike any he’s previously done, sweetly nostalgic and understated, perfectly accentuating the cool mood of the film.
In the lead role of Doc Sportello, Joaquin Phoenix gives the comedic performance of the year as the most howlingly expressive stoner detective ever to grace to the screen. Yet the film is very much an ensemble piece, so much so it’s hard to pick out the highlights from the carnival of stars. Look, it’s Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Benicio Del Toro! But it’s impossible to deny the appeal of Katherine Waterston’s mellow femme fatale and Josh Brolin’s hippy-hating cop. Oh, and there’s Martin Short in a brief cameo as a hopped-up skirt-chasing dentist who…dies tragically in a trampoline accident.
There is an unnecessary (though admittedly very well-played) and lengthy sex scene, and the film is too laid-back in its runtime. You, too, might feel stoned, dozing off with a smile only to be roused by nothing in particular and laughing.
While it’s easy to dismiss this as great direction and acting in the ironic service of a silly story, I was still pleased with the effort. Doc Sportello is just a stoner clown with good intentions, trying to save troubled ladies from dark unspeakable hippy horrors, ya dig? I rooted for him, like I always root for Anderson, in spite of his vices, inherent and otherwise.
Written by David H. Schleicher