There’s walking in circles and then there’s walking in circles the Paul Thomas Anderson way. Whatever that means. Not that it matters. Who cares, anyway? A flippant attitude for a flippant movie. Except that Inherent Vice, Anderson’s latest and possibly his worst, is 150 minutes of flippancy, a wacky stumble into safe, though awfully off-putting absurdity that goes nowhere and is damn proud of it. This is a tale of hippies and police corruption and bad things being done in the name of drugs in the early 70s, but whatever the hell Anderson is trying to say, either in response to the Thomas Pynchon novel he’s adapting or as a sort of malaise-fueled commentary on the decade he so lovingly drooled over in “Boogie Nights,” it gets lost in the meandering.
This is the rare Anderson attempt at a comedy, though just as his dramas have comedic elements, so do his comedies have their serious bits, too. Inherent Vice is also a sunny noir, a tale of perpetually high private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (a mutton-chopped Joaquin Phoenix, “Her”) answering his ex-girlfriend Shasta’s (Katherine Waterston) plea to look into the disappearance of a controversial and very wealthy real estate mogul (Eric Roberts). Various oddballs are encountered along the way and a ton of info regarding whatever the Golden Fang is or isn’t manages to be doled out in painfully slow fashion. The cast is a somewhat eclectic bunch, giving Maya Rudolph a bit role and proving once again that Owen Wilson (“The Internship”) is the strangest choice of certain auteurs, considering he always gives the same bland performance no matter who’s calling the shots.
Josh Brolin (“Gangster Squad”) fares better in a considerably sized supporting role as a cop nicknamed Bigfoot who has an eccentrically comical taste for frozen chocolate-covered bananas. His relationship with Doc allows for a look at the different ways professionals seek the truth in the scuzzy land of sleazy 70s L.A., but the characters are stuck in a pretty lame story that makes minimal room for them to grow beyond their goofy quirks.
When Anderson does nutty, it’s generally mean and nasty, because he’s a filmmaker who can cut to the bone and make the slicing look artful. The iconic milkshake rant that concludes “There Will Be Blood” is gloriously nutty and funny and weird, but it’s also cruel and cold and psychotic. The zaniness of the milkshake metaphor is juxtaposed against the harshness of the encounter, so there’s a striking dichotomy there that really encompasses what Anderson can do so well. He’s often brilliant at illuminating the madness within a very human situation or heightening a conflict just enough that it straddles the line between being overwhelmingly cinematic and believably grounded.
But none of this approach really fits the stoner comedy that Inherent Vice pretends to be and it doesn’t make much sense of the smoky noir attitude, either. The movie is too shambly to support the long-winded and ever winding narrative that sends Doc chasing down lead after lead in a casually convenient manner and yet it’s too rigid and controlled to access the free and freeing space a silly romp like this needs to roam.Anderson is no stranger to absurdist fantasies and here he toys with flashes of inspired oddities, as he often has in his various movies, but the attempts to be weird and wacky lack an organic buzz and so everything comes off as trying too hard, which really doesn’t work when the characters are all stumbling about in a cloud of pot smoke. It’s a strange combination, the silly, laid-back characters and the carefully controlled, compositionally sound director, but one that’s worked wonderfully in the past when it was the Coen brothers making “The Big Lebowski.” Comparing what Anderson is attempting here to the works of the Coens’ is hard to avoid, because in addition to the obvious Lebowski match up, there’s a desire for fatalistic narrative ellipses that recalls the Coen brothers’ brilliant recent pic “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Such comparisons are probably only good to help pinpoint what works with one approach and what’s missing from the other, but generally speaking, Anderson’s work stands on its own. The frustrating thing about Inherent Vice is that Anderson’s penchant for wearing his influences on his cinematic sleeve is counterproductive in this particular effort, because the influences already did it so much better or the influence doesn’t lead anywhere new or exciting. Anderson himself acknowledged that this has tinges of Zucker brothers humor in it, but as insanely inspired as the very concept of Paul Thomas Anderson’s take on “The Naked Gun” sounds, the use of dumbfounded dialogue and slick slapstick still feels too stiff and calculated to convincingly connect this movie with its comedic cousins.
In theory, though, that’s fine, probably even for the best. Anderson just being Anderson should be enough. It usually is. He’s a unique filmmaker whose thematic commentary is almost always insightful and interesting and he commands the camera with gusto. And this time around, he still gets great work from his returning collaborators. After a one-movie hiatus, cinematographer Robert Elswit is back and there’s certainly a joy in seeing him photograph an Anderson pic again. Elswit did tremendous work with the epically sweeping camera work found in “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” (forever Anderson’s masterpiece for me) and then adapted with the director’s growing style to shoot the beautifully dusty deserts of early California in “There Will Be Blood.” Here he brings some 70s-style grain and sun-soaked warmth to attractively evoke a sense of time and place. There’s also another excellent effort from Jonny Greenwood, who has now scored the director’s last three movies. Here he mixes his music with plenty of songs from the era and it’s all quite wonderful. And Phoenix, who always seems to deliver his best performances under the guidance of select auteurs who challenge him, like Anderson and James Gray, is once again wild and fun and very impressive here.
So there are certainly pieces of the puzzle to be appreciated, but for once, Anderson doesn’t act like the glue that these pieces require. He’s usually a great storyteller, but here he’s not telling a remotely engaging or intriguing story and his flourishes simply make the ridiculousness of all this hullabaloo about nothing even more irritating because they’re dragging out the experience. It’s clear from early on that Doc’s investigation isn’t headed anywhere particularly enlightening and Anderson really has no surprises in store for us.
Strangely, this often fantastic filmmaker is a slave to the narrative here. When more than ever the plot would seem to encourage an unconventional and completely gonzo shunning of the rules, Anderson plays it all pretty much by the book. There’s a subversive quality at work here and there’s no denying that Brolin kicking down a door and chowing down on a platter of marijuana is a bit out there, but these moments are mere flashes of fun in an otherwise annoying affair that’s always wandering through the motions of the roundabout investigation.
It’s so odd to see Anderson miss his mark by such a wide margin, but he’s never been possessed of a looseness that would seem a key ingredient of the arthouse answer to a stoner flick. He’s also rarely committed to brevity, which is arguably one of his great charms, since he’s always been great at realizing an intimate story in an epic manner. But the lengthy running time of Inherent Vice simply means we get more scenes of Doc hunting down his latest lead in what generally amounts to another name and another mysterious hint that the investigation is far bigger and more unpredictable than it actually is. There’s a lot of misdirection here, a lot of characters adding absolutely nothing to this mix of drug pushers and users. It’s not hard to keep up, but Anderson seems eager to suggest this is all a case of more than meets the eye. So of course, red herrings abound. No wonder this nonsense smells so fishy.