Fancy watching the detectives? Like an episode of The Rockford Files directed by surrealist master Alexandro Jodorowsky, PT Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s book makes a good fist of bringing a very tricky narrative to life. Pynchon isn’t the easiest writer to read or adapt; Anderson reportedly imported the whole book to his computer, and then carefully cut and pasted the dialogue into his script, a cool work-around that you can get away with if you have the directorial talent.
In a performance along the same tracks as Elliott Gould’s shambling Phillip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, Joaquin Phoenix lets it all hang out to play Larry Doc Sportello, a detective on the trail of the Golden Dragon crime ring in 1970’s California, running across a series of oddballs who may or may not move him closer to his goal.
Anderson is an actor’s director, and musters a spectacular cast, including a barely recognisable Reese Witherspoon as a socialite, Martin Short as a perverted dentist and Josh Brolin as a policeman who moonlights as an actor and goes somewhat spectacularly off the rails when Sportello shows his own tenacity by dodging a series of lethal situations. Maya Rudolph, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson and plenty of other stars turn up to keep the interest when things get confusing, and yes, they get pretty confusing here.
As wonderfully all-over-the-place as its hero, Inherent Vice is arrestingly slow, atmospheric in counter-culture detail and will induce meltdowns for anyone looking for a good story, briskly told. A running joke in which Sportello’s notes are revealed as amusingly deficient for his task quickly drops the hint that the fun here is in collecting the salty, elusive details, not what they add up to.