It's perfectly understandable that after the epic undertaking of 2012's The Master - power! corruption! cultdom! self-delusion! post-traumatic stress! - Paul Thomas Anderson would want to try something, um, fun. The filmmaker did a similar switching-gears thing back at the turn of the (21st) century, following the beautifully grim Magnolia with his goofy two-step Punch-Drunk Love (starring Adam Sandler, no less).
So, here Anderson is, moving his hands through a cloud of cannabis smoke (figuratively speaking) to capture a psychedelic slice of stoner life in 1970 Southern California. The source material is Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, the writer's 2009 mash-up of Raymond Chandler and Cheech and Chong. The director goes at the book reverently, lifting paragraphs of prose, zigzagging dialogue and the names of the players - cartoonish monikers such as Japonica Fenway, Petunia Leeway, Sauncho Smilax, and Rudy Blatnoyd.
Pynchon fans must be quaking on the anticipatory precipice for such a meeting of the minds. Even if you haven't read the novel, how can Joaquin Phoenix as a fuzzy-synapsed L.A. private eye, barely able to get off his couch to chase down clues, go wrong?
Somehow, though, it does.
Tonally askew (Altman-esque one minute, Austin Powers-esque the next), Inherent Vice is a sun-glared, neon-limned muddle of noir plotline and potheaded jokery that not only doesn't make sense, but actually seems to try hard not to.
It'd be fine to just give up tracking the action - "Doc" Sportello (Phoenix) helping out ex-gal pal Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who thinks that the real estate mogul she's bedding, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), is the object of a get-rid-of-the-guy plan perpetrated by his wife (Serena Scott Thomas), and then people start showing up dead, or not showing up at all - and enjoy the scenery. There's plenty to take in (cinematographer Robert Elswit rules!), from the colorfully shabby bungalows that line the beachfront where surfers and bikinied hippie girls meet, to the pancake house where Josh Brolin, playing a cop with a blocky crew cut and an oral fixation, barks orders in Japanese (Brolin's performance is a hoot), to the glitzy headquarters of Golden Fang Enterprises, a hub of illicit commerce that looks to have been furnished by the same design team that did those Dean Martin as Matt Helm movies.
Now and then, a song by Neil Young or Sam Cooke or Minnie Ripperton or German art-rockers Can pops out of the soundtrack and makes you feel good about life, and about Inherent Vice.
Maybe if the picture wasn't 21/2 hours long, and maybe if you could understand what the mumbling Phoenix was saying between the tokes and the beers, and maybe if you could distinguish the look-alike blondes played by Waterston and Joanna Newsom (the latter provides authorial voice-over, and drops by to cuddle with Doc), and maybe if Martin Short and Benicio Del Toro had gone off to make some other movie where they could go all bug-eyed in unison - well, then maybe Inherent Vice could be considered, um, fun.
Me, I'm just going to wait for Anderson to get serious again.
Inherent Vice **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. With Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, Martin Short, Michael Kenneth Williams. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 28 mins.
Parent's guide: R (drugs, sex, nudity, profanity, violence, adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.