Adapting Thomas Pynchon’s most mainstream novel, Paul Thomas Anderson takes a step back from bravura character studies and ensemble pieces to land somewhere in the middle: a deliberately rambling stoner noir, a comic drama with its centre of gravity firmly fixed at P.I. Doc Sportello (mumbly Joaquin Phoenix)’s freaked-out furry face – those sideburns are a treat – whirling amid a constellation of self-assured weirdos on both ends of the Hippie-Establishment spectrum.
Though trailers sell Vice as a slapstick 1970s riot, there’s more at play here. The beautifully conjured atmosphere is plentifully free-wheeling and sex-drenched, the colour palette is perfect, and there are plenty of laughs, not least from Josh Brolin’s flat-topped cop. But imbuing the film’s fabric along with the smell of patchouli is a sense of sometimes elegiac, sometimes panicky disillusionment as our wobbly-yet-wily lead meanders through a post-Manson, post-Altamont L.A., where Hippie euphoria has curdled into a strung-out tangle of paranoia, corruption and greed.
Anderson has danced a delicate foxtrot around the question of receiving Pynchon’s express blessing, out of respect for the author’s carefully maintained mystique. It’s another aspect of this respect that arguably mars the film in the end: though cutting the novel’s near 400-page Byzantine entanglements to even a two-and-a-half-hour screenplay was most likely a near-superhuman effort, there’s a hard-to-shake feeling that if anything, Anderson was too gentle. There’s an awful lot of sitting around tables with wacky characters talking in elegantly wacked-out riddles. The whack-jobs are intriguing, the tables are period-perfect and the riddles are witty, but there’s a certain want of the purely cinematic exposition Anderson is so abundantly capable of and which the film’s more frenetic moments – an excursion to dodgy massage parlour Chick Planet, an encounter with a pharmaceutically generous dentist – only highlight.
All that said, any sense of befuddlement or dissatisfaction feels bang in key with the post-Hippie comedown at the heart of the narrative, and the batty construction certainly matches the tale’s characters. This is still certainly the most straight-up fun as well as romance (twisted as it is) that Anderson has dished out since Punch Drunk Love – the road is long, but the company is right-on.
Inherent Vice | Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (USA 2014) with Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newsom, Josh Brolin. Starts February 12