Inherent Vice, film review: Beautiful but hazy shades of Pynchon

(15) Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson; Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, 149mins
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The Independent Culture

It would take a film-maker of rare boldness to try and adapt one of Thomas Pynchon's dense and eternally digressive anti-narratives for the screen. Paul Thomas Anderson is both the first to have tried and the first to have succeeded. But what counts as success in this case also looks a lot like a frustratingly hazy movie which never quite makes sense.

Inherent Vice is set in 1970. It's shot on evocative, grainy old 35mm stock, and is in the tradition of films such as The Long Goodbye and Chinatown, which reconfigured the existential confusion and dis-orientation of old noir stories to reflect the paranoid societal comedown that followed the earlier rush of Sixties hippie idealism.

Joaquin Phoenix plays stoner beach-bum PI Larry "Doc" Sportello, who agrees, at the behest of his ex-girlfriend, to look into the disappearance of a property developer. The case transpires to variously involve the Black Panthers and white supremacist bikers, a vertically integrated drugs cartel called Golden Fang, a desert massage parlour called Chick Planet, and the Chryskylodon mental institute; a resurrected saxophone player (Owen Wilson) and an association of drug-addled dentists. We are sometimes afforded glimpses of the notes that Doc scribbles as he makes his way through the case ("I might be paranoid"; "Something Spanish"), which tell us that he hasn't got any idea what's going on either.

It's a beautifully crafted film about a paranoid culture chasing its own tail, and the search for meaning in a world where there isn't any. A lot of its detail is funny, but the tone is suffused with regret, and nostalgia for something, although who knows what, that has slipped away.