Inherent Vice (2014)

2015 #113
Paul Thomas Anderson | 149 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Paul Thomas Anderson — the fêted writer-director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master, et al — here turns his hand to adapting reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 opus. It met with notably less success than most of his previous works. The Alliance of Women Film Journalists were one of few organisations to recognise it come awards season, with a gong for “Movie You Wanted to Love, But Just Couldn’t”. Apt.

The story — not that the story is the point, as aficionados of Anderson and/or Pynchon will happily tell you — sees stoner PI Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receive a visit from an ex girlfriend (Katherine Waterston), who’s been having an affair with a real estate developer whose wife now intends to have him committed so she can inherit his estate. It only spirals from there, and I’m not even going to begin to get into all the different directions it shoots off into.

Really, the plot is a deliberate mess — it’s not the point, remember — but even allowing for that, it’s messy. How things are connected to one another is regularly unclear, subplots seem to take over for no apparent reason, and if there was a point to it all, it completely passed me by. Maybe I’m being cynical, but I get the impression it also sailed past those who would claim there was some point, as they scrabble around to justify one. Moments of amusement or filmic craftsmanship do shine out, but only occasionally. Chief among these is Robert Elswit’s cinematography. It’s understatedly wonderful, reminding you how great proper film stock can look, especially in HD. Digital photography has its benefits, but golly there’s something to be said for film.

Anderson chooses to realise the movie mostly in long, unbroken takes, which not only lets the photography shine, but also allows his cast free rein to construct their own performances. I’m not sure how much that pays off, but it’s certainly not a hindrance. Turns from the likes of Josh Brolin and Martin Short border on the memorable, though your mileage will vary on if anyone truly achieves it, with the possible exception of Katherine Waterston, who surely deserves more — and more prominent — roles. Other recognisable faces (Jena Malone, Eric Roberts, Reese Witherspoon) are wasted in one- or two-scene appearances, which I suppose we could kindly call cameos.

For a certain kind of viewer, Inherent Vice will be nirvana. Or possibly for two kinds of viewers. One: stoners, who can identify with the main character, and find the majority of life just as bewildering as this film’s plot. You don’t have to go far on the internet before you find, “dude, it’s a totally great movie to watch stoned, dude”-type comments. Two: some Anderson and Pynchon fans (though by no means all), as well as similar cinéastes, who I’m sure can find something in there because it’s by an acclaimed auteur so it must be worth re-watching multiple times, and if you re-watch anything enough you can find some deeper meaning to it.

I am in neither of those groups, however. The aforementioned fleeting aspects of quality weren’t enough to swing it for me either. Sadly, I’ll be chalking this up alongside Killing Them Softly and Seven Psychopaths as “neo-noirs from previously-excellent directors that seriously disappointed me this year”.

3 out of 5