Paul Thomas Anderson gleefully enigmatic 2014 adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice chronicles the corrosive underbelly of American culture. Just like There Will Be Blood and The Master. Yet it’s also delicately and subtly infused with dream-like atmosphere found in Punch-Drunk Love. Unfortunately, Inherent Vice fizzled at the US box office, despite a relatively modest $20m budget. Admittedly, an absurdist thriller with elements of noir, boisterous comedy is a tough sell. But it’s Anderson’s narrative swagger and his loving attention to detail which anchors the film, bringing all these disparate elements together.
Its 1970 Los Angeles and things aren’t too groovy when the sudden mysterious departure of ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) spurs The Dude-like P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) to begin investigating his old lover’s current boyfriend – a powerful property magnate with links to a far right group masquerading as a security team. When the subject of his surveillance himself disappears, Sportello is drawn deeper into a convoluted kidnapping plot and his misadventures bring him into contact with a number of colourful characters, including old nemesis Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a deeply conservative, borderline fascist detective who moonlights as a TV show bit-part player and infomercial host.
Pynchon’s work is a notoriously difficult nut to crack, cinematically. Although Inherent Vice is his most accessible novel, Anderson has decided to embrace the complex, sometimes impenetrable nature of the original text and run with it, rather than attempting to simplify and risk diluting in the process. But there’s really nothing wrong with having to rewatch a film to get a more of a handle on things. Books are often reread precisely because of that, so why should cinema be different? If Anderson is a little self-indulgent with the running time – which is up there with the bum-numbing There Will Be Blood and The Master – this is a minor issue. Shot in sun-bleach, faded 35mm stock, with a view of California deeply entrenched in cinematic folklore, Inherent Vice is dense and sprawling, but also kind of magical in its own weird and wonderful way.