I think Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most, if not the most, important filmmakers working today. When I say important, I don’t necessarily mean that his films are more socially consequential or tackle more weighty ideas than those of his contemporaries. What I mean is that PTA’s catalogue displays a talent for working with actors, an ability to write and capture authentic human emotion, a visual style both aesthetically interesting and rich with meaning, a canny sense a humor and an appreciation of the form and history of filmmaking that is unparalleled amongst his peers; and that’s important. That being said, I was disappointed with the director’s new film, Inherent Vice, not because it’s poorly made, but because the material itself, perhaps even the idea to spend time turning it into a feature length film, seems somehow beneath this filmmaker. As I left the theater, and even in the waning minutes of the film itself, the one idea I couldn’t get out of my head was that despite its sensory pleasures and the sporadic chuckles it provided, Inherent Vice feels sort of pointless.
To be brief, Vice is the story of stoner P.I. Doc Sportello’s meandering quest to thwart the demise of an ex-girlfriend’s new beau, then locate said ex-girlfriend when she disappears, then later reunite a surfer-saxophonist-turned-informant with his family (or something) and uncover the true nature of “The Golden Fang” (which could be an Asian drug ring, a boat or a dentists’ guild). It’s all quite convoluted, as you might imagine, but that’s not necessarily a problem. The labyrinth of colorful characters and secret plots could function as a mirror of the foggy haze in which the perpetually stoned Sportello operates. I can dig it. But the script is overly concerned with the messy narrative, spending too much time and breath exploring plot machinations that are hard to care much about and eschewing opportunities to do pretty much whatever else it wants with the rich setting. PTA knows how to create moments, to build scenes that feel like short films in and of themselves, bending tones and themes at will, but the characters in Inherent Vice don’t ever seem to talk about anything besides the immediate plot. Having never read the book, or anything by Thomas Pynchon for that matter, it’s hard for me to tell where the source material ends and the film adaption begins, but this outing certainly lacks the unique voice that I’ve come to appreciate as a hallmark of Anderson’s writing.
The star studded ensemble does what it can given the mostly flat characterization, but at the end of the day their efforts, too, seem wasted. Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro; these are some of my favorite actors, but their characters are so cartoonish that one struggles to make any kind of connection. There are a few genuinely funny moments (this is supposed to be a comedy after all): Martin Short’s coked-out dentist is thoroughly amusing, Brolin’s completely absurd final scene is bizarrely entertaining, complemented beautifully by Phoenix’s reaction shots, and “Moto panekeiku!!” has become an oft interjected phrase in my own home since the film’s theatrical trailer debuted. But Inherent Vice, like many films, seems to suffer from the unfortunate treatment of unveiling most of its best lines and gags in the trailer, a surefire way to set audiences up for disappointment.
As I read this review back to myself it seems like I hated this film; I didn’t. It’s better than 90% of what makes it’s way to your local United Artists or Cinemark. It’s a just bummer that the best director in world under the age of 50 chose to spend the last 2 years making a mediocre stoner detective comedy when we already have The Big Lebowski.