Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) is an enigma. Despite wordy interviews, he doesn't let much go about his past, and his motivations are always opaque. This is the guy who made is mark with a dive into the seedy world of porn, Boogie Nights, at 26 years old, and never looked back. Since, he’s delved into stories of gambling, love, disease, oil, Scientology and now, well, no single word can describe Inherent Vice. It’s a thematically diverse CV, exploring different people in different times, much more reminiscent of directors such as Orson Wells, Sidney Lumet, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, and Jonathan Demme, than with the more prominent figures working in Hollywood today - Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Mann, Cameron, Scott et al. Like Kubrick and Malick, PTA has something of a Marmite quality to his works, love or hate him, at least he keeps us guessing.
Like Anderson, Thomas Pynchon is also an enigma. In the major leagues. He’s the Keyser Soze of writers, shrouded in a blanket of mystery. There’s only been a handful of photos published of him, and after his writing career broke through, he disappeared. It’s apt then, that the first attempt at adapting one of his works is made by Anderson, perhaps the director closest to Pynchon’s own opacity (certainly considering the abundant limelight of Hollywood). However, there may have been a very good reason that Inherent Vice has been dubbed ‘unfilmable’ for years. It does not translate well.
It must be said, this writer attempted the novel a few years ago, only for it to be added to the extremely short list of books never finished. I never really started to be honest. About twelve pages in it was clear that this would not be an enjoyable read, and his prose for me, were incoherent, baffling and oddly constructed for the most part. Clearly PTA and I don’t share love of the same writing.
Inherent Vice is possibly the least accessible of PTA’s works, which is saying something. Steve Rose of The Guardian even referenced it in his piece about great walk-out movies, and indeed, it is a walk-out movie. During my (very quiet) screening, five of the twelve people watching left by half-way through, all of them shaking their ends in bafflement and frustration. I’m not a walker-outer, but Inherent Vice is what I would describe as bloody hard viewing, not because of nuance or subtlety, but because of boredom. It is boring.
The film follows the escapades of ‘Doc’ (Joaquim Phoenix – typically good as usual), a stoner private eye living on a Californian beach, and seemingly as surprised as we are that he’s actually survived the sixties to tell the tales. He’s a bumbling hippie, and a thorn in the side of the LAPD, and various nefarious and bizarre acquaintances, who wish he’d just bugger off once and for good. Following an out-of-the-blue visitation from an estranged girlfriend, Doc plunges into the murky world of crooked cops, traitorous masseurs, secret societies, wealthy socialites and deranged dentists, as the film plays out three different cases, all of which seem to crossover and overlap at various confusing intervals, producing something of a spaghetti Venn diagram (yeah, it’s that complicated). The main problem it faces is a severe lack of focus, narrative and coherency, which I’m sure has been highlighted to the masses as ‘being the whole point’ by smug critics the world over, given this is the seventies, it’s Pynchon, it’s lead is stoned. Whatever. I haven’t spoken with a single sole who understood what the heck was going on, let alone actually enjoyed it. I wanted to enjoy it, I wanted to love it, but sadly, the mumbling befuddling dialogue, and shortage of any tangible or credible plot to follow makes for very boring viewing.
There are a few ‘saviours’ with Inherent Vice, namely the acting, which sees some great chops from Phoenix, Josh Brolin and Katherine Waterston, and the gorgeous 70mm visuals really embody the era (1970) with its texture. Sure, there’s a few chuckles along the way, and some interesting interactions between Doc and some of the more off-the-wall characters (Martin Short’s supporting role is memorable), but PTA hasn't really brought us anything worthy of his filmography, and definitely the biggest disappointment of his career to date. [2/5]