Sometimes you just won’t get it. No matter how hard you try or how focused you are, a movie can sometimes get away from you. It happens with ambitious films. Occasionally, the aspirations to achieve something unique leads to unentertaining territory. That’s pretty much the case for the new Paul Thomas Anderson film, “Inherent Vice,” which I have started calling “Incoherent Vice.” It aptly describes my feeling about the movie and most of the characters that inhabit this hippy-dippy 1970’s version of California. Thomas Pynchon’s dense, wildly wandering novel becomes a little acid trip that features some great performances and facial hair but is about as intelligible as the Sanskrit alphabet.
The story takes place in the fictional town of Gordita Beach, California. Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is a perpetually tweaked private eye. His ex-wife shows up and lays a heavy dose of reality on him. It seems her new boyfriend, a wealthy land developer named Wolfmann, is going to be involved in a kidnapping attempt by his scheming wife, Mrs. Wolfmann. It’s a case Doc would be reluctant to get involved in, but he harbors feelings for his ex-wife and goes digging for information. Much like an onion, the more you peel away, the more it stinks.
The biggest problem I had with “Inherent Vice” was the character pool. These highly stylized parodies of 1970’s pop culture are so precisely sculptured and intrinsically irritating. I felt my inner Red Foreman bubbling to the surface. I was constantly suppressing my urges to yell out “dumbass” and threaten to put my foot up someone else’s ass. The strange oddballs that populate this zany world are the kind of people I wish I could be trapped in an enclosed space with a baseball bat and a ziplock bag full of thumbtacks.
Joaquin Phoenix is, as always, a really interesting actor to behold. Even in this generally senseless mess, he shines as Doc, a lovestruck private dick who deals with an incredibly complicated case of murder, blackmail, drugs, and real estate. For some reason, every crime movie set in California has to somehow intertwine hardcore drugs and/or real estate.
“Inherent Vice” is pretty much saved by Phoenix and Josh Brolin, who make for a hilarious pair every time they share the screen. Doc and Brolin’s Bigfoot perfectly represent the struggle between chaos and anarchy that the hippie era represented. Doc is a well-intentioned stoner who believes there are things in life more important than money. He pines for his ex-wife, who seems to find trouble no matter which way she turns. Bigfoot is that last tether to the post-war era, and his intentions are nearly as noble. Doc deep-dives the internal exploration of the mind-trip era, while Bigfoot mourns the decay eating its way through a consequence free society.
Everything else not involving these characters felt like a messy, sleep slog. There’s a plot involving the FBI, a religious cult, a dentist, a strip club, and Owen Wilson—and it goes nowhere slow. Over the two-plus-hour conveyer belt of nonsense, I can’t tell you the number of times I found myself asking, “Why the hell is this happening?”
Paul Thomas Anderson is a gifted director who visited a much more interesting part of this era with the practically perfect “Boogie Nights.” In a way, I suppose you could compare “Incoherent Vice” to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” another film that was like a cheese grater to my eyes and ears. I’ve heard some draw comparisons to “The Big Lebowski,” but it feels insulting to the Coen brothers. They indulge in a similar taste of eclectic characters, but their films don’t sink under their own weight.
My other major gripe was with author Thomas Pynchon, who apparently decided to name his characters while on LSD and watching too much “H.R. Pufnstuf.” Here are a list of character names: Shasta Fay Hepworth, Sortilege, Petunia Leeway, Coy Harlingen, Riggis Warbling, and Chrolinda. These are not the names of human people. These are the names of Muppets, or perhaps students at Hogwarts. I kept hearing Peter Griffin from “Family Guy” in the back of my head declaring, “It insists upon itself.” That’s the kind of idiotic criticism you get from people regarding art-house cinema, but ding dang damn if it doesn’t apply to “Inherent Vice.”
This might very well be the most pretentious movie I’ve seen this century. So much effort has gone into to making this world strange and surreal that it never seems to be based in our world. It’s like a mystery that takes place during “The Wiz.” I’m fine with weird; in fact, I actively encourage weird. However, “Inherent Vice” is in its own strangely detached universe and just a little too far out for my tastes.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson