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Inherent Vice - 'a very clever but frustrating film'

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Katherine Waterston as Shasta Fay in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Inherent Vice’

Katherine Waterston as Shasta Fay in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Inherent Vice’

Joaquin Phoenix and Katherine Waterston in Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix and Katherine Waterston in Inherent Vice

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Enterta

Joaquin Phoenix and Benicio Del Toro in Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix and Benicio Del Toro in Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Inherent Vice

"Big Hero 6" (L-R) HIRO and BAYMAX. ?2014 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

"Big Hero 6" (L-R) HIRO and BAYMAX. ?2014 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

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Katherine Waterston as Shasta Fay in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Inherent Vice’

Paul Thomas Anderson's 2006 film There Will Be Blood was so bold, so original, so breathtakingly good that critics (including me) compared it to Citizen Kane, and declared Anderson the pre-eminent American film-maker of his generation. I remember at the time, though, wondering if Mr Anderson's oil-smeared epic might not be a very hard act to follow.

So, was it? Well it depends who you ask. To many observers, his 2012 film The Master was a work of genius, a devastating psychological drama exploring the leader/disciple dynamic and America's weakness for Bible-thumping charlatans. It certainly looked fantastic, but remained for me a brittle, overworked film, a series of brilliant moments in search of a meaningful theme.

And now we have Inherent Vice, Mr. Anderson's eagerly awaited adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's 2009 comic crime novel. As usual, Anderson can't be faulted for lack of ambition: only he would dream of taking on as esoteric and quicksilver brilliant a writer as Pynchon, whose magnificent sentences tend to fall apart in your hands as soon as you try to analyse them. Pynchon's book, and this film, are loving spoofs of the classic detective story, though set in 1970 rather than the 40s.

Instead of Philip Marlowe, we get Larry 'Doc' Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a hippy private detective who smokes pot like it's going out of fashion and rarely knows what day of the week it is never mind what case he's working on. It's 1970, the hippy heyday of 1967 is now a distant, bitter memory and Doc is sitting at home one night contemplating his navel through a fog of marijuana smoke when his languid ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) turns up out of the blue.

She explains she's been going out with a married and super-wealthy property developer called Mickey Wolfmann, and asks Doc to help her foil a plot by Mickey's wife to kidnap Wolfmann and commit him to an asylum. Doc still loves Shasta, and watches wistfully as her vintage car drives away, but her visit will cause the lackadaisical detective all sorts of trouble.

When Doc goes to visit Wolfmann's latest development, he's beaned with a baseball bat and wakes up next to the corpse of a white supremacist biker. His LAPD nemesis, Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) uses this as an excuse to arrest and harass him, but the two men will end up reluctantly joining forces to solve the disappearances of Wolfmann and Shasta, as well as the reappearance of a hippy musician (Owen Wilson) who's supposed to be dead.

There's plenty to enjoy in Inherent Vice: Anderson is a boldly unique film-maker, and where others would devote huge amounts of time and money on recreating 1970s Los Angeles, his vintage LA is conveyed by inference, lighting, language and mood. Pynchon's book is very funny, and Anderson has transplanted large dollops of its humour intact, though I find that even highbrow jokes based around pot-smoking tend to wear thin after a while.

There's some fine acting, too: Benicio Del Toro plays the kind of lawyer you'd expect Doc to have, Owen Wilson does befuddled better than anyone and makes Doc look as sharp as Humphrey Bogart by comparison, and Josh Brolin upstages all-comers as the flat-topped, hippy-hating Bigfoot.

But the tone of the film is problematic, and at times it feels like an extended in-joke. Anderson's evocation of the bad hangover that hit California once Charles Manson had spoiled the counter-culture party is compelling, but while his contempt for his detective story may be deliberate, it's also frustrating.

Joaquin Phoenix is given more liberty to ham his way through this long and shambling film than is good for him. And time and again, Inherent Vice reminded me of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, a film it obliquely refers to constantly, and may not be as good as.

Inherent Vice

(16, 148mins)

4-5 stars

Irish Independent


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