Paul Thomas Anderson is a director known for his somewhat baffling approach to society in filmmaking. Bearded oil barons, teenage porn stars and, now, dope fiends and a stoned private investigator. Anderson’s work is often heralded for its use of visceral imagery and vivid color palette (not to mention, vivid imagination) and he has kind of entered cult territory in his position as director. With the trailer release of this year’s Inherent Vice we could be forgiven for thinking we were going to get much of the same quirkiness with his tale of ex-lovers, love triangles and 1960’s America. While the feature isn’t far off what Anderson is now so known for, it generally falls flat. With cinema walk-outs, a pretentiously long running-time and an incoherent plot (although I’m pretty sure that was the directors intention) Inherent Vice is, simply put, just a little bit of a let down.
Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel (which received acclaim from critics) Anderson’s film follows the convoluted narrative of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), an ex heroin addict still hopelessly in love with his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterstone, encapsulating the hippy spirit of the decade perfectly) and on the search for Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts, featured in only one scene and sorely missing from the majority). Phoenix carries the entire film on his own – the ensemble cast is varied, with del Toro, Brolin, Wilson, Malone and Witherspoon all providing support in some sense. They might as well be invisible here. Phoenix as Doc is loveable, hilarious and our journey into his quirky world is at times, pretty damn interesting. Doc is someone who you wouldn’t mind having on your side, and though he may be in a drug-induced haze, he still does pretty well in the bizarre situations he finds himself in. Phoenix’s acting is equaled by Joanna Newsome’s incredible narration as Sortilege. Her on-screen appearance is lacking but her presence as narrator is probably one of the strongest elements in a film riddled with weaknesses. In fact, Newsome’s sultry, thoughtful and engulfing voice is one of the best ever heard on film – no exaggeration.
With all this positivity you’re probably asking ‘What could be wrong?’. The answer to that would be; muffled dialogue (in a plot that’s almost impossible to follow, quiet talking overtaken by a non-diegetic soundtrack doesn’t make it any easier). A running time of 149 minutes is so unnecessary in a film dominated by whimsical conversations about topics that quite literally, make no sense. Anderson’s direction is as indie as is acceptable within mainstream cinema but this becomes over-bearing towards the final scenes with a range of closed-shots used that leave you wanting room to breath (the final scene is dominated by thoughts of what is going on around Phoenix and Waterstone rather than the characters themselves). All focus is basically lost. The film goes nowhere, and you can’t help but feel you just wasted a couple hours, even if you were sat in the comfiest cinema seats around (thanks, Picturehouse).
Sure, Anderson’s script produces laughs (but mostly from dialogue featured in the trailer) and the soundtrack is killer – if you grew up in the 60’s you will be transported back to your youth with an up-beat tempo that produces plenty of toe-tapping. There are so many different components that could propel this film into greatness, but at no point do they come together to form one strong, coherent – and enjoyable – piece of cinema. Cult? Yes. For the majority? Definitely not. Even fans of the director’s more out-there works such as Boogie Nights will struggle with this one.