Director Paul Thomas Anderson is best known for epic emotional journeys like Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, but Inherent Vice is most like Punch Drunk Love, one of the few bearable films that Adam Sandler has ever been a part of and one of Anderson's funniest works. Inherent Vice is, just like its source material, Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel of the same name, absolutely hilarious, with a script full of quotable one-liners delivered flawlessly by a superb cast, assisted by neat tricks of editing and structure that show that Anderson really understands comedy. However, the problem with the film becomes apparent when it attempts to toe the line between humour and pathos. Its mix of comedy and introspection seems more than a little sweaty, and as such will likely leave a pretty salty taste in your mouth when it's done.
The film starts off with Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receiving a visit from his ex-squeeze Shasta Fay Hepworth at his Gordita Beach pad, where she tells him that she has fears that her married lover is about to be the victim of a scheme concocted by his wife and her lover. From there, prompted by a lingering jones for Shasta Fay in his heart and in his pants, Doc encounters a dizzying array of characters in an attempt to get to the bottom of what turns out to be much more than just a case of kidnapping. The mystery isn't really the most important part, though. The heart of the film lies in the paranoia that arises in the constant haze of drugs, the hidden malice behind every bizarre weirdo and the tension between hippie Doc and his "pal" the straight-edged cop Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).
The cast are, for the most part, superb. Could anyone have been more perfect than Joaquin Phoenix to play Larry "Doc" Sportello? I sincerely doubt it. Phoenix inhabits the character completely, from his wild, inquisitive eyes to the voice caked with years' worth of marijuana smoke. Phoenix's performance is by far the most enjoyable part of the film, though other actors shine as well. Along with memorable cameos from Maya Rudolph and Martin Short, Josh Brolin's performance is brilliantly hammy, Owen Wilson is perfectly downtrodden as unwilling informant Coy Harlingen, Reese Witherspoon hilariously condescending as Deputy D.A. Penny KImball and Jena Malone surprisingly moving as former junkie mum Hope Harlingen. One of the other shining stars is singer and harpist Joanna Newsom, known for her idiosyncratic vocalisations, who plays hippie mystic Sortilège and narrates the film, often quoting verbatim Thomas Pynchon's original rich, overstuffed prose. I would be very willing to pay for a recording of Newsom reading the entire novel.
Despite its good points, though, Inherent Vice is too long. Though excising a fairly large portion of the novel, the film still runs for two and a half hours, a length that it doesn't really have the strength to sustain. It takes far too long to get to the point of the narrative, offering the audience very little in the way of satisfying progress or a clearly defined goal. The film's schtick, though it is very endearing and much smarter than the Cheech & Chong stoner comedy that it often emulates will likely start to wear thin around the halfway point. The film's narrative is such a mess that it can't create much engagement with the more sentimental scenes - the relationship between Shasta and Doc is not particularly interesting, largely in part because of a rather flat performance by Katherine Waterston as Shasta.
Inherent Vice is pretty enjoyable, but it suffers from lack of pacing and lack of direction. It doesn't really offer much more than its absurd style of humour, because in adapting the unwieldy book for the screen, it has been stripped of the corrupted mysticism that defined its powerful commentary. It's clear that Paul Thomas Anderson has the utmost respect for the source material, so it's doubly disappointing that Pynchon's first leap to the screen is so frustratingly unsatisfying. See it for the performances, particularly Joaquin Pheonix's, which is probably his strongest to date, and see it for the great time you're going to have finding every tiny piece of laboured over nuance in the script and in the delivery. See it because even if Paul Thomas Anderson makes a few missteps sometimes, he's still one of the most talented and ambitious directors working today, and even a film as flawed as this one proves that.
Inherent Vice opens in Australian cinemas on March 12.