Inherent Vice review

Tripping major Paul...

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Tripping Major Paul...

Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh film feels like light relief after his sixth, the heavyweight melodrama The Master. But then rather like Punch-Drunk Love, when PTA does comedy, don’t expect hearts and flowers. This is the first time revered and reclusive American author Thomas Pynchon has been adapted for the big screen; you could say he’s found his perfect match in the man behind Magnolia and There Will Be Blood.

Here, there will be pot – and lots of it. Set in the fictional Californian neighbourhood of Gordita Beach in 1970 (the year PTA was born, incidentally), Inherent Vice is the tale of the shambolic private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), an inveterate dopesmoker – or “hippie scum”, if you prefer the analysis meted out by his LAPD nemesis, Det. Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, on magnificent form).

As we hear in voiceover, from indie singer Joanna Newsom, “these were perilous times, astrologically speaking, for dopers”, though that doesn’t stop Doc rolling up a fattie and getting himself all messed up in a plot so complicated, it makes The Big Sleep look like Jackanory. Don’t worry if you lose track – there’s a good chance the pot-hazed Doc has too, after his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) pays him a visit.

Her current squeeze, real-estate tycoon Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts), is in danger, with his wife and her toy-boy looking to put him in the funny farm in order to grab his wealth. With us so far? Good. Doc takes on the case, bringing him into contact with everyone from prostitutes to powder-sniffing dentists (Martin Short, in an all-too short appearance) to a secret society called The Golden Fang. Themes of paranoia and insecurity – all classic Pynchon tropes – loudly echo around the walls.

Set in an ultra-seedy LA, with the shadow of the Manson murders looming large, the attention to detail is quite superb. From Phoenix’s ever-dirty feet (you sense he probably didn’t wash much through the shoot) through to Jonny Greenwood’s persuasive score, you’ll feel like you’ve seen and smelt the ’70s by the end of the ride.

Sure, it meanders at times – but when the encounters include tête-à-têtes with Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson, it seems churlish to complain. Those expecting belly laughs will be disappointed, but as a poignant love-letter to a city and an era, Inherent Vice is pure dope.

More info

Theatrical release30 January 2015
DirectorPaul Thomas Anderson
Starring"Joaquin Phoenix","Josh Brolin","Katherine Waterston","Reese Witherspoon","Benicio Del Toro"
Freelance writer

James Mottram is a freelance film journalist, author of books that dive deep into films like Die Hard and Tenet, and a regular guest on the Total Film podcast. You'll find his writings on GamesRadar+ and Total Film, and in newspapers and magazines from across the world like The Times, The Independent, The i, Metro, The National, Marie Claire, and MindFood.