A new Paul Thomas Anderson film is a major event, and so it is with some disappointment that I discovered that after the misfire that was The Master, his new film is little more than a well-crafted shaggy dog story which is confused and confusing in equal measure, with only a few enjoyable moments for us to savour.
For reasons which elude me, Anderson has chosen to film a novel by Thomas Pynchon. For those unfamiliar with TP's works, he is one of America's most highly though of novelists – highly thought of by those who like their books long, obtuse and clever; and their novelists to be elusive, opaque and invisible. Inherent Vice is reckoned to be Pynchon's most accessible novel, which isn't saying a great deal.
It's a shaggy dog story set in 1970 about a stoner private eye called Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who is caught up in a plot of labyrinthine complexity, but of very little interest. The problem for the viewer is that it involves a lot of encounters with different people, most of whom we only meet once. He has an ongoing love/hate relationship with a cop called Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), an on/off romance with a young woman called Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), and a quest in life which involves a rock musician called Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson). Pretty much everyone else has a walk on role, in which they talk to Doc for a few minutes then disappear again.
The major flaws of the film are a) the proliferation of characters who we don't know or care about, b) a plot that is as dense as the fog of dope smoke that surrounds Doc, and c) the fact that most of the film consists of Doc talking to someone else. It's a very talky film, and none of these conversations seem to lead anywhere except to the next conversation. The major exception to this rule is a long scene in which Shasta seduces Doc (for reasons I didn't understand), but if Anderson was aiming for something sultry and langorous, he fails.
Which brings me to the main question I was left with. Why? Not why did Doc spend so much time sorting out Coy Harlingen's life (though that is a pertinent question), but why did Anderson put so much time and effort into a film that – despite its resemblance to The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski – is dull, inert and without obvious purpose. Yes, it is occasionally funny; Joaquin Phoenix makes a convincing pothead PI, and the rest of the cast do an excellent job. But there is nothing of substance to be found after nearly two and a half hours, and that's a lot of time to spend on hot air, even if the air is full of dope smoke. I would imagine that PTA is a fan of Pynchon's, was thrilled at the idea of being able to and allowed to make a film of the great man's book (no else has ever achieved this), and followed too slavishly in the footsteps of the original, overlooking the fact that what works in a book, may not work on screen.
I can see that I may be a lone voice with this view. Judging by the reviews of the film on IMDb, the critics are almost unanimously in favour. I'd love to join them. I've been a fan of Anderson's films up to and including There Will Be Blood. But a director's reputation is not enough of a basis for a rave review. I only hope you enjoy it more than I did.