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Depicting An Unstable Era, 'Inherent Vice' Never Jells, But It's Addictive


This is FRESH AIR. The seventh feature by the writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson, best known for his films "Boogie Nights," "There Will Be Blood" and "The Master," is the first film adaptation of a novel by Thomas Pynchon. It's a laid-back mystery called "Inherent Vice," starring Joaquin Phoenix. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: I don't know what Paul Thomas Anderson has got with "Inherent Vice," which might or might not be a good thing. I don't mean to sound so indefinite, but the movie, which is set in 1970, in a beach town south of LA, is like a gorgeous stone or art object. And maybe you need to get baked to be on its dissonant, erratic wavelength. It's groovy, campy, dreamlike, funny, funny-strange and funny-ha-ha.

It's like nothing else, except the novel, which is Thomas's Pynchon's contribution to the LA-stoner-private-eye genre, the highest, so to speak, achievements of which are on film, Robert Altman's take on Raymond Chandler's "The Long Goodbye" and Joel and Ethan Coen's "The Big Lebowski." All their narratives unravel as they go along, and this one isn't too raveled to begin with.

Its slurry rhythms are set by Joaquin Phoenix, one of America's best, and slurriest, actors. He plays Doc, ex-drug-dealer-turned-licensed-hippie-private-eye. And he twitches a lot under twin clumps of sideburn and takes his sweet time muttering his lines. Really, if Phoenix weren't such a brilliant, witty, emotionally true performer, he'd be intolerable. In the first scene, Doc is vegetating in his disordered beach bungalow when Shasta appears, the willowy hippie chick, played by Katherine Waterston, whom he loved, and who drifted away.


JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Larry "Doc" Sportello) That you, Shasta?

KATHERINE WATERSTON: (As Shasta Fay Hepworth) Thinks he's hallucinating.

PHOENIX: (As Larry "Doc" Sportello) No, it's just the package, I guess.

WATERSTON: (As Shasta Fay Hepworth) I need your help, Doc.

PHOENIX: (As Larry "Doc" Sportello) You know I have an office now? It's like a day job and everything.

WATERSTON: (As Shasta Fay Hepworth) I looked in the phone book. I almost went over there. Then I thought better for everyone if this looks like a secret rendezvous.

PHOENIX: (As Larry "Doc" Sportello) Somebody keeping a close eye?

WATERSTON: (As Shasta Fay Hepworth) To spend an hour on surface streets, trying to make it look good.

EDELSTEIN: Shasta is nervous, and rightly so. She's dating a Jewish real estate mogul, guarded by neo-Nazi bikers, and she's been contacted by his wife and the wife's boyfriend, not to drive her off, but bribe her into helping them put the man in the loony bin. Already the geometry is bizarre, and the movie has barely started. Then Shasta and the mogul disappear. Though, this is the sort of detective film where she might be dead or might have flaked off because she needed more space. Nothing is too clear.

What matters is, Doc loves her enough to rouse himself and go to work, bumping up against Aryan gangs, masseuses, drug-addled dentists, runaway rich girls, undercover police informants and cops, so many cops. Foremost among them is a hard-ass, buzz-cut-wearing, civil-rights-violating policeman, known affectionately as Bigfoot, who moonlights as an actor. Josh Brolin plays him with deadpan genius. He's always beating up on Doc, but the two have a strange kind of infantile, mismatched buddy thing going on. They need each other to exist.

On paper, "Inherent Vice" looks like Anderson's return to ensemble movies after the relatively intimate "The Master," but it's more of a pedestal for Phoenix. He's in every scene, with guest stars popping in and out. Jena Malone has a cute scene as the ex-junkie wife of a supposedly OD'd surf band sax player. Reese Witherspoon, with a lacquered hair helmet, is a strait-laced assistant DA, sleeping with Doc. It's fun seeing the couple from "Walk The Line" reunite under radically different circumstances. Martin Short, with his inimitable loopy rhythms, sidles in as a sleazeball dentist. Singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom plays Doc's friend and does twittery voiceovers from Pynchon's book. There are so many wonderful actors - Benicio Del Toro, Michael K Williams, Owen Wilson, Jeannie Berlin, Martin Donovan, Jefferson Mays and more.

As a mystery, the film is less coherent than Pynchon's novel, no mean feat. But there is meaning in its madness. "Inherent Vice" depicts an especially unstable era when the air is starting to leak out of the whoopee cushion that is the counterculture, leaving paranoid bad vibes and developers ready to move in and build condos. Anderson and his longtime cinematographer, Robert Elswit, bring a free-floating, scrambled, centerless mode of being to life. The movie never gels, but it's rich enough to make you want to go back and watch it again - maybe even again. Anderson is certainly a self-indulgent filmmaker, but some selves are worth indulging. It's a visionary mess.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.
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