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With: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Joanna Newsom, Eric Roberts, Serena Scott Thomas, Peter McRobbie, Sasha Pieterse, Delaina Mitchell, Michael K. Williams, Jeannie Berlin, Madison Leisle, Samantha Lemole, Shannon Collis, Elaine Tan, Hong Chau, Sam Jaeger, Timothy Simons, Jefferson Mays, Steven Wiig, Keith Jardine, Jillian Bell
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson, based on a novel by Thomas Pynchon
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
MPAA Rating: R for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence
Running Time: 148
Date: 12/12/2014

Inherent Vice (2014)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Going to Pot

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It is now widely accepted that Paul Thomas Anderson is a genius, one of the greatest living filmmakers, and perhaps in a league with even someone like Welles or Kubrick. So when Anderson drops something like The Master on us, it causes a response along the lines of "I have no idea what this is, but it must be great." I more or less did that in my review as well. Now comes Inherent Vice, and it's a little less opaque, a little more transparent, and it's starting to look more like a bad movie than a mysterious, confounding great one.

Based on Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel, Inherent Vice already has some fans among respectable, responsible, intelligent film critics, notably J. Hoberman and Richard von Busack. But I have seen it twice and I simply failed to grasp whatever it was that they grasped. I suspect that the main point is that it's a detective story without a solution, and indeed without much of a mystery. It's about itself. Goodness knows I don't necessarily need all my movies to be perfectly wrapped up and concluded, so I don't believe that's the problem.

It begins as a hippie private eye named Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) gets a visit from his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She tells him about a shady deal involving a real estate magnate, and then disappears. Doc keeps getting tips and phone calls and leads that bring him around to other situations. There's something called the Golden Fang that may or may not be the name of a ship, or the name of a deadly criminal organization, or maybe even something else. He meets musician Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), who was supposed to have disappeared, and now seems to be making a living as a kind of spy, showing up at various gatherings and doing different things. Eventually Coy becomes the key to this whole story, or at least he's the key to some kind of stopping point.

Reese Witherspoon shows up as Doc's current girlfriend, a less hippie-ish assistant D.A., while Josh Brolin plays the other most important character, a cop nicknamed "Bigfoot." Bigfoot starts out as a thorn in Doc's side, but eventually they become kind of cockeyed partners, not unlike the off-kilter pairings in The Master and There Will Be Blood. Meanwhile, Doc smokes a lot of pot. A lot. And Anderson makes some vague attempts at stoner humor that will tend to recall The Big Lebowski, except not nearly as funny, or as good. The trailer for the movie is terribly misleading, emphasizing tighter beats and moments of comedy, making the movie look like it's going to be hilarious, when those same gags don't quite work in the more lethargic film.

I think part of the problem is that the movie is set in 1970, and we get a complete collection of period clothes, cars, music, decorations, and props. Like many other movies, it's a farewell to the peace-and-love era of the 1960s and a hello to the more complex, violent, downbeat period that followed. It will also remind anyone with knowledge about movies of 1970s-era detective films, maybe Chinatown (1974) and Night Moves (1975), but especially Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973). That last one matters most. In it, Altman took one of Raymond Chandler's stories and set it in the present day, with a shabby, out-of-place detective working in a world of Hollywood hippies and drugs, trying to solve a mystery without a solution and with an unforgettable middle-finger of an ending. The Long Goodbye is a masterpiece.

We might also remember that Anderson is a huge Altman fan. His films Magnolia (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002) paid direct homage to Altman, and it is even rumored that Anderson was available on the set of Altman's final few films as a backup director for the aging master. So it's fairly safe to say that Anderson at least considered The Long Goodbye a little bit while making Inherent Vice. But the twist is that the new film has nothing to offer that the old film did not already do, and better.

Maybe the movie isn't supposed to be about anything? Perhaps it's supposed to be like one long, 148-minute marijuana high. The tangents it goes on come from nowhere and go nowhere. I can see how, for certain viewers at certain times, this could be a good thing. Perhaps you need to be a Thomas Pynchon fan, which is a failing of mine, since I have never read any of his books. Perhaps you also need to be more of a fan of Joaquin Phoenix than I am. Last year, he gave his best-ever performance in Spike Jonze's Her, opening himself up emotionally for the first time, but Anderson seems to prefer him as closed-off, impenetrable.

I did like Brolin and Waterson, though, and certainly Anderson's rhythms are always refreshingly out of step with whatever is accepted and complacent in American movies. His use of music is rather shocking, with songs going on much longer than might be acceptable, or thrumming right over the top of a scene of dialogue. And, if you consider individual sequences, snippets, or moments, as if thinking back over the hazy, nausea-inducing party from the night before, you might find a few moments that can make you smile with their strange audacity. But that's not enough to make a masterpiece.

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