After years of toying with my patience (first with “There Will Be Blood,” and more recently with “The Master,” both of which feature such great acting that it papered over their respective cracks), Paul Thomas Anderson has finally made a movie that’s almost impossible to defend. Fans of the director will make excuses for the film’s myriad problems anyway, but the fact that they find it necessary at all only confirms what a giant mess “Inherent Vice” really is. Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, the so-called inherent vice (or hidden defect) of Anderson’s slacker noir is the narrative itself. It’s as if the film, like many of its characters, is in a constant state of a drug-addled high, unable to remain focused or make sense of anything that’s going on. And while that may be the big joke of “Inherent Vice,” it’s not a very funny one.
Set in the seedy underworld of 1970s Los Angeles, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a pothead private investigator who receives a visit one night from his free-spirited ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterson), requesting help with a personal matter. She needs Doc to track down her new boyfriend, hotshot real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), after learning that his duplicitous wife plans to have him committed and steal his fortune, only for Shasta to go missing herself. While investigating the pair’s disappearance, Doc takes on some additional cases – including a presumed-dead musician (Owen Wilson), the murder of one of Mickey’s bodyguards, and a mysterious Indo-Chinese drug syndicate called the Golden Fang – that are curiously all connected in some way. Doc doesn’t exactly know why or how, but one thing seems certain: he’s not going to get any assistance from hippie-hating LAPD detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), with whom he has a strange love-hate relationship.