The time has come to stop making excuses for Paul Thomas Anderson. The old justifications, such as “He makes great films, unless you’re stupid enough to expect them to make sense or be satisfying,” don’t work anymore. With “Inherent Vice,” the list of disappointing movies has gotten too long.
Let’s just say it: Boring an audience with a pointless, meandering story does not constitute brazen defiance against the tyranny of narrative.
The talent is there. Anderson has a sensibility, a particular sense of humor, a way of looking at life that could slant and enliven a good screenplay. There’s a scene in “Inherent Vice,” for example, in which Joaquin Phoenix and Owen Wilson sit and talk, and underneath the surface patter, there’s a deep and unmistakable sadness.
To see that scene is to be impressed by the filmmaker’s ability to evoke states of the soul and put conflicting emotions in harmony. But there’s a huge difference between talent and delivery.
“Inherent Vice” is based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, a kind of faux Los Angeles noir. The “faux” might make it sound ideal for Anderson, in that the story is just a framework for his invention. In fact, that’s the problem. He would have been better off adapting a novel that’s strong where he’s weak.
Phoenix plays Doc, a hippie detective in 1970 who smokes pot and mumbles. An ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) shows up one evening and asks him to investigate a creepy situation involving a rich, Jewish neo-Nazi businessman (Eric Roberts) and his cheating wife. And this is enough to begin Doc’s investigation, which is also an investigation into the Los Angeles underworld, right around the time that ’60s idealism was curdling into something more tired, drugged and disillusioned.
Without the safety net of narrative, with nothing to engage an audience on a plot level, Anderson puts himself in a difficult position of having to win over the viewer scene by scene. This is hard enough, but he’s further hemmed in by a central character who doesn’t have much of a stake in the action, who just takes life as it comes. So no one really cares all that much, not Doc, not Anderson, not even Pynchon.