“Inherent Vice” is a stoner “Chinatown” as directed by Wes Anderson, if Wes got sick midway through it and the darker Paul Thomas Anderson took over for the last acts.
Actually, only one Anderson — Paul Thomas (“The Master,” “There Will Be Blood”) — tried to wrestle Thomas Pynchon’s comic novel about drugs, detectives, disappearances and dentists into a film. He manages some deliriously off-center performances, daft writerly pronouncements and a plot that almost defies summary.
“As clear as the vodka you keep in the icebox!”
But it’s also stupidly long. “Vice” is the first real patience-tester from a director who typically works “long,” a muddle of amusing conceits and aimless, infuriating randomness.
Joaquin Phoenix is Doc Sportello, the detective in this mystery, but Doc is unlike any gumshoe the movies have ever seen. Yeah, the PI gets a complicated assignment from a dame, an ex-girlfriend.
DIRECTED BY: Paul Thomas Anderson
STARRING: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Benicio Del Toro, Maya Rudolph and Jena Malone
RUNNING TIME: 148 minutes
But Doc’s challenges aren’t just hateful, ham-fisted cops, foolish Feds, shady drug traffickers and bikers. His biggest challenge may be his sobriety. He has a dazed, word-slurring “Can I trust what my eyes are seeing?” way about him.
With Wolfman sideburns and glazed eyes and a collection of Woodstock Era pants, vests, shirts and Army jackets, Doc is on the cusp of the hippy drug culture/“straight” America divide of 1970.
From his side of the generation gap, people flock to his detective agency, people like Shasta (Katherine Waterston), an old flame caught on the horns of a blackmail dilemma, or Coy (Owen Wilson), a sax-playing snitch wondering how the family he had to abandon is doing.
Josh Brolin is the cop they call “Bigfoot,” a two-fisted thug who labels himself a “Renaissance detective.”
Benicio Del Toro, ironically delivering the most coherent line-readings of his mumbling career, is Doc’s dockside lawyer.
The script, ostensibly a search for a missing L.A. developer (Eric Roberts), is peppered with hookers, hippies, runaway heiresses, ex-convicts and the occasional coke-addict dentist (Martin Short).
Anderson keeps these various juggled balls in the air for 90 minutes or so, scoring Pynchon points about the breadth of the culture divide of 1970 — every pot smoker is a “fiend” to the straights — and landing Pynchon laughs. Note how loopy everyone’s name is — Puck, Sauncho, Japonica, Dr. Blatnoyd, etc.
But Anderson loses his way, failing to thin out the novel and its overload of characters, piling scene upon scene.
Phoenix, however, is never less than fun as a private eye who never seems to collect payment from anybody, whose case notes are nonsensical and whose grasp of all the confusion around him is no firmer than ours. Pairing him with Wilson is one of the great moments in screen stoner history.
Bit players like Elaine Tan make an impression. Reese Witherspoon has a glorified cameo as a buttoned-down assistant DA. And Joanna Newsom, as a wholesome hippy narrator, gets most of the best lines.
In the end, “Inherent Vice” is about 90 minutes of narrative and an indulgent, meandering final hour that makes almost no sense at all.