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Suffocated by “Inherent Vice”

A bold and thrilling new film. But is it watchable?

Nicholas Barber | January 14th 2015

Paul Thomas Anderson is probably the most revered writer-director of his generation. He was already loved for “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia”, but when he made “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master”, he came to be regarded as a major American artist whose grand themes and experimental narratives made his contemporaries seem like lightweights. It’s an assessment I would go along with. But when the trailer for his new film promised that it would be a faster, sillier, sex’n’drug-fuelled detective comedy, I couldn’t stifle a sigh of relief. Anderson, it seemed, had got his sense of humour back.

Sure enough, “Inherent Vice” is a sex’n’drug-fuelled detective comedy. A Los Angeles odyssey that puts a gonzo twist on “The Big Sleep”, “Chinatown” and “LA Confidential”, it boasts plenty of attractive stars (Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Josh Brolin), lots of zany character names (Ensenada Slim, Petunia Leeway, Burke Stodger), and a conspiracy plot that takes in a desert cult, a gang of white supremacists, and a syndicate of hedonistic dentists. Despite all that, it also has the solemnity and obscurity of Anderson’s recent tragic dramas. I’ve watched documentaries about human trafficking which were more fun.

Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel, “Inherent Vice” stars Joaquin Phoenix (above, left) as a hippy private eye who sports Wolverine sideburns and a combat jacket, and who talks suspiciously like Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski”: the main difference between them is that he’s named Doc instead of Dude. An old flame hires him to investigate a scheme involving her lover’s wife and the wife’s boyfriend, but, even before she’d finished talking, I’d lost track of what exactly he was being hired to do. For a while, I quite enjoyed being bamboozled, but all too soon I was buried under so many frayed plot strands that I could feel myself suffocating. By the time Doc had stumbled around murky back streets and waterfronts for two-and-a-half hours in a fog of befuddlement and dope smoke, I knew that I’d have to sit through “Inherent Vice” several times if I wanted to understand it. It was a terrifying prospect.

Mind you, there is something thrilling about seeing a film that qualifies as a folly. Anyone can make a bad film, but making one that is bold, ambitious, and sometimes brilliant, but which is still dizzyingly unwatchable, takes rare talent. And that’s what Anderson has done. After all, it’s not as if “Inherent Vice” is sloppy or stupid. As well as being faithful to Pynchon's sprawling prose, Anderson has brought his own personal vision of the corrupted American dream—it’s just that his vision is so personal that it excludes everyone else.

Certainly, it’s no accident that the plotting is impenetrable, or that the cinematography lurches between grainy dimness and lens-flaring brightness. And it’s no accident that the actors mumble their baroque dialogue in punishingly long, static takes, during which they are very nearly drowned out by the drum-heavy rock’n’roll soundtrack. 

The scene that exemplifies the film’s perverse genius has Owen Wilson's jazz musician discussing the ins and outs of his heroin addiction in a whisper. Minutes pass, then more minutes, and then you start to doubt whether Anderson’s precious anti-thriller is ever going to end. Anyone who grumbled about the indistinct dialogue in “Interstellar”...you ain’t heard nothing yet.

Inherent Vice British release January 30th. Out now in America

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