‘Inherent Vice’ gets lost in haze 

click to enlarge Joaquin Phoenix is quite convincing as a druggie detective trying to solve a case involving his ex in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice.” - COURTESY WILSON WEBB/WARNER BROS.
  • Joaquin Phoenix is quite convincing as a druggie detective trying to solve a case involving his ex in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice.”
Inhale something strong and perhaps you can ride forever on the stoner-noir wavelength of “Inherent Vice.” But too often, Paul Thomas Anderson’s rendition of Thomas Pynchon’s novel lets its dreamers, dopers, shamans, cops, thugs, dentists and lost souls get lost in the sprawl and haze.

As with previous Anderson films, which include “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” the movie contains colorful and questing characters looking for familial or spiritual connection in Los Angeles and thereabouts. It is a detective yarn set in 1970, when, in the wake of the Manson murders, the mellow vibes of the 1960s are giving way to nastier dope, real-estate greed and Nixonian paranoia.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a psychedelic Philip Marlowe of sorts. He’s jaded but morally solid like the noir-era private eyes, but pot-dazed instead of hardboiled.

The story begins when, you guessed it, a sultry woman – former flame Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) – arrives at Doc’s beachside digs. She seeks his assistance in locating her vanished current lover, real-estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts).

Soon, Shasta, too, disappears. Doc gets mired in rabbit-hole weirdness.

A whack on the head, a corpse, a saxophone-playing snitch (Owen Wilson), a schooner, and run-ins with hippie-hating, civil-rights-smashing LAPD detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) are mere bits of the labyrinthic picture.

Anderson has cited Howard Hawks’ version of Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” as an influence here, saying that while he couldn’t follow that movie’s plot, he was interested in what would happen next. “Inherent Vice” sometimes has that quality. At its best, it impresses as both a warped valentine to 1960s idealism and a sad acknowledgement that many idealists fried their brains or sold their souls.

But over this 2.5-hour movie’s long haul, the nowhere-bound plot strands don’t congeal. Anderson scores emotional points with love stories – the Doc-Shasta romance, Wilson’s character’s desire to reunite with his wife and child, and, to an extent, Bigfoot’s love-hate dynamics with Doc – which don’t resonate in the druggie fog.

The new-agey Sortilege character (Joanna Newsom) as a presumably clairvoyant narrator doesn’t achieve the voice-of-truth element that detective-noir demands.

Yet the characters are entertaining and never shallow. Phoenix, with hair that brings to mind a 1970s Neil Young (indeed the inspiration for Doc’s look) crossed with Wolverine, is deranged; his befuddled look when straining to solve the case is particularly memorable.

Brolin’s Bigfoot transcends the cartoonishness that defines his frozen-banana-eating, flat-topped character. Reese Witherspoon, as a beehive-styled prosecutor who is Doc’s unlikely current squeeze, and a funny Martin Short as a coke-crazed dentist who heads a sinister syndicate, round out the supporting cast.


Inherent Vice

two and a half stars

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson

Written and directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rated R

Running time: 2 hours, 28 minutes

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Anita Katz

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