Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson's psychedelic noir film, expands from limited national release to theaters areawide on Friday. Anderson is known for his big, long ensemble pieces (Magnolia, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, to name a few) and here, in the first-ever adaptation of reclusive postmodernist novelist Thomas Pynchon, be advised that his learning curve is a steep one.
Which isn't to say that the film's not good, or smart, or laugh-out-loud funny. It's often all three. But the story is so intricately (and often, extemporaneously) plotted that following along from scene to scene — remembering faces, names, relationships — requires a humongous amount of attention.
The trailer may have clued you in:
"If it's a quiet night out at the beach and your ex-old lady suddenly out of nowhere shows up with a story about her current billionaire land developer boyfriend, and his wife, and her boyfriend in a plot to kidnap the billionaire and throw him in the looney bin, maybe you should just look the other way" a voice over tells us.
And that's just the tip of the marijuana leaf. Joaquin Phoenix is the stoned private eye Doc Sportello, mumbling and bumbling about the beaches and head shops of Los Angeles with a ragtag assortment of allies and foes (Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, and Owen Wilson among them). When his ex-old lady (Katherine Waterston) goes missing after the late-night encounter described above, he slides into a thorny criminal plot which involves the Orient, white supremacists, sinister dentists, obscure surfer musicians, and lots of drugs.
The point is you shouldn't look the other way, not even for a moment, or else you'll be irrevocably lost. You'll also miss out on Anderson's rich recreation of the Left Coast in the early '70s, awash in post-'60s identity crises and far-out haircuts.
One of the big tensions in the film — or in the viewing experience anyway — is the clash of pacing in Anderson's scenes (slow and meandering) and the story at large (afflicted, at times, with ADHD). It's odd, or even ill-advised, to have a narrative so jam-packed with twists and turns and still spend three minutes on a long shot of Sportello approaching a mobile home. You certainly feel every minute of the two-and-a-half-hour run time. Plus, Phoenix just seems a few steps behind the momentum of the picture, as if the film itself is a drug-induced cloud in which he wanders. You sense the sought-after effect, but also sense that it misses the mark by a hair.
Nonetheless, Phoenix' scenes with Josh Brolin, a flat-top, white-bread cop named Bigfoot Bjornsen, are priceless, or at least worth the price of a matinee movie ticket.