Stoned free: Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson harkens back to his 1997 breakout Boogie Nights with Inherent Vice, a wacky, woozy and weedy adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s noir-ish novel.

With Joanna Newsom’s appropriately willowy narration providing guidance, we follow Joaquin Phoenix – in yet another fabulous and fearless performance – as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a perennially baked Southern California private eye as he stumbles, purposefully, through a milieu of crime, corruption and deception populated by crazy characters at every turn.

The 1960s are over, the 1970s have dawned, Richard Nixon’s in the White House, Ronald Reagan is California’s governor, the radio’s rocking with classic tunes, and everyone’s got Charles Manson on their mind … except Doc, still pining away for ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who wants Doc to locate her missing boyfriend, real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (the one and only Eric Roberts). Phoenix’s Doc Sportello isn’t Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes and this isn’t Chinatown (1974), but it’s in the same ballpark.

Beautifully and colorfully photographed by ace cinematographer Robert Elswit (an Oscar winner for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood), Inherent Vice is clearly Anderson’s tribute to Robert Altman’s classic 1973 Raymond Chandler adaptation The Long Goodbye, which put quite a spin on Chandler but remained true to his essence. The Pynchon novel is already steeped in satire, duly and enthusiastically upheld. This is Anderson’s lightest film in years, although it tends to overstay its welcome and wend wayward in the latter stages. In short, the buzz wears off. Finding the answer is more fun than the answer itself.

Nevertheless, there’s much to enjoy here, including a starstudded cast. Josh Brolin has a showy role as a hard-boiled, head-busting LA cop, Owen Wilson drifts in and out amusingly as an anonymous rock star, and Waterston (daughter of Sam) proves her allure, including one of the lengthiest nude scenes in mainstream cinema of recent years. Jena Malone, Jefferson Mays and Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s off-screen partner) make the most of small roles, while Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jeannie Berlin, and the always welcome Martin Short could have had more to do – but it’s nice having them around all the same.

Inherent Vice opens Friday. !

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