**1/2 out of ****
After his crowning accomplishment, There Will Be Blood, director Paul Thomas Anderson’s films seem to be missing something. I wouldn’t be quick to blame it on Joaquin Phoenix as his current go-to leading man. Phoenix is undoubtedly talented, but not at winning my sympathy. Still, I consider his animal-like demeanor to be a welcome challenge when he is the protagonist.
In Inherent Vice, based on the Thomas Pynchon novel, Anderson embraces film noir of the countercultural variety. Like in The Long Goodbye and The Big Lewbowski, our detective is an unconventional hero. In this case, “Doc” Sportello, played by Phoenix, is a bumbling doper of a P.I. in early nineteen-seventies L.A., lending his services to hippies, misfits and radicals who can’t look to the law for help.
In accordance with the genre, he embarks on an investigation, sparked by a beautiful woman (Katherine Waterston) and is often side-swiped by legitimate investigators (in this case, a hippy-hating bull of a police detective wonderfully played by Josh Brolin), while meeting weirdo after weirdo, and being knocked-out and beat-up multiple times along the way. Sometimes there is narration, but instead of the deep and gruff first-person voice we’re used to, we hear the squeaky feminine delivery of singer Joanna Newsom, a minor character in the film.
Anderson’s proven competence with period settings and love of the seventies dominates the overall tone of this film gorgeously. The costumes, hairstyles and architecture are all captured perfectly on celluloid, but I’d be lying if I claimed that the two-hours and twenty minutes of aimless disorienting narrative with too many characters left me feeling satisfied.
The movie reminded me of the drug-addled quest seen in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where odd twists and turns seem to be enacting nonsensical story elements from an unreliable perspective. Like noir going all the way back to the Bogart/Bacall flick, The Big Sleep, there is so much to follow, it hardly seems worth following. I just went with the flow, wondering which of this film’s long list of eccentric casting choices would steal a scene –and it happened plenty of times.
There are a lot of laughs and delights scattered throughout in this film’s experience, including fearlessly directed segments involving seduction and inexplicably weird actions, but I didn’t leave with that feeling of invigoration that Anderson’s indulgences used to earn.