Synopsis: In 1970, drug-fueled Los Angeles detective Larry “Doc” Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix,Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, Martin Short, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newson, Maya Rudolph
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Running Length: 148 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (1/10)
Review: Looking back at the experience (and what an “experience” it was) of my recent screening of Inherent Vice I’m reminded of that one time I was in an airplane for 10+ hours traveling from Greece to Minnesota. At certain points of the turbulent flight I thought I wasn’t going to make it and mentally said my good-byes to everyone I loved while a single tear fell down my face. Then the plane landed, I was able to exit the airliner, and I went about my life.
Inherent Vice isn’t 10 hours long (but it sure feels like it) but unlike my trip to Greece, you won’t leave a showing of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaption of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel with a miniature replica of the Acropolis for your troubles.
Pynchon’s loopy novels have long been thought to be unadaptable for cinematic endeavors and Anderson’s screenplay proves why over and over again. It’s an obtuse, awkward, non-engaging film with so many layers it could be described as an onion dipped in PCP…which doesn’t necessarily signify a bad film, mind you. No, the worst offense of Inherent Vice is that it’s shockingly, maddeningly boring.
Set in the Manson crazed days of 1970’s Los Angeles, the film follows schlumpy PI ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, Her, Parenthood) through a case that hits close to home but opens up a Pandora’s Box of trouble. Asked by former flame Shasta (Robot & Frank’s Katherine Waterston, the victim of a humiliating sex scene late in the proceedings) to take a look into the shady intentions of the wife of her current lover (Eric Roberts, Lovelace), Sportello dives headfirst into a plot involving murder, kidnapping, extortion, drugs, and sex.
Now, sounds like fun, right? Perhaps…but my friends, it’ all in the execution and though Anderson knows how to produce a film with multiple storylines (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) things are rocky from the get-go. Though I was initially intrigued by a pre-credit noir-ish sequence that finds Shasta visiting a sleepy Sportello and asking for his help the film lost me before fifteen minutes were up. Even with the occasional foray into explicit hilarity such as Sportello’s visit to a massage parlor that boasts a menu of services that I can’t reprint here the majority of the film is a rough slough.
Reteaming with The Master star Phoenix, Anderson should have stuck with the original choice for the role….Robert Downey, Jr. Though Downey was deemed “too old” for the part, Phoenix looks gruesomely ancient thanks to unkempt sideburns, permanently greasy hair, and unshaven scruff. While Phoenix has a field day with the role, lounging through several drug induced sequences and slurring his words like was the Meryl Streep of lazy r’s, he’s only pleasing himself (and Anderson) as the haphazardly effective private eye.
The film’s labyrinthine plot may be interesting in hindsight but it’s so dense and unconcerned with our interest that I wondered if this shouldn’t have been a home movie for Anderson and Phoenix to watch huddled together with a bowl of popcorn on Oscar night. Pynchon’s novel is chock full of wacky names and comic turns but onscreen it feels too goofy for its own good. Josh Brolin (Oldboy), Reese Witherspoon (Mud), Owen Wilson (The Internship), and Benicio Del Toro (Savages) all show up as part of the caper at hand with only Brolin and Witherspoon in on whatever joke Anderson was attempting to convey. Also of note is Joanna Newsom’s earthy performance as an acquaintance of Sportello, though I started to question if she was a figment of his imagination or not.
Let’s put a pin in showering Anderson with love simply because he started out so strongly. I feel like it’s almost a sin for a cinephile to deride Anderson’s work but viewing a film like Magnolia side-by-side with Inherent Vice reveals a filmmaker that has given in to self-indulgence and forgotten that films are made for audiences (even discerning ones, though nearly a dozen at my screening didn’t stay for the whole picture). It doesn’t have to be a simple, easy to digest, pallid work…but it does have to have a pulse.