Film review: Inherent Vice

Featuring two authorial voices notorious for confounding cinema-goers and readers alike, Paul Thomas Anderson adapting a Thomas Pynchon novel seemed like an exciting prospect when it was first announced. As Anderson’s first attempt to adapt a novel – save for his part-adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! for There Will Be Blood – it would be fascinating to see how he imprints himself on another’s work. For anyone unfamiliar with the back catalogues of either of these men they have both produced work that often requires multiple readings or viewings before folk have been willing to commit one way or another to whether they actually enjoyed them.

In Inherent Vice it would appear the unthinkable has happened. Anderson, in adapting Pynchon’s prose, seems to have used his own tendency to muddy the point to muddy Pynchon’s point to the extent that there is nothing going on in this film at all. What remains is a gorgeously shot, masterfully designed and impressively cast film that is completely hollow.

At no point does this film feel like it is zeroing in on a point or set-piece that is in anyway meaningful or interesting. It is a series of one-take slow dolly shots featuring two actors talking in dense overtly stylised prose about stuff that is beyond impossible to care about tied together by a series of random encounters with characters who are not so much the damaged enigmas of Pynchon as they are a collection of forced caricatures.

The film starts off being about Doc Sportello’s attempts to help and then locate his ex-girlfriend Shasta who shows up on his doorstep looking to get him to help foil a plot by her lover to have a wealthy real estate developer committed to an insane asylum. It ends up being about getting a police informant out of the criminal underworld and back with his wife. Throughout we tag alongside the stoner private detective Doc Sportello played by Joaquin Phoenix meeting all these quite weird but ultimately forgettable characters.

Glimpses of Pynchon emerge, through themes of paranoia and secret societies, but they are mostly hidden away beneath the domination of the ill-adapted plot. Anderson’s influence is even less present here, really pronouncing itself in the choice of music but ultimately proving to be the least interestingly shot film he’s ever done.

This film is neither self-expression nor collaboration. It is the product of being duty bound to see a project through conception to execution despite there being no real desire on the film-maker’s part to actually make the film. The film was originally announced as being commissioned by producer and heiress Megan Ellison in exchange for putting up the money for Anderson’s previous film The Master. When a film ends up being this vacuous and uninspired, it would appear like that a lack of any real desire on the director’s part to make the film is to blame. In cinemas 30 January 2015. Watch the trailer here.

Stephen Murphy

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