The time has come to stop making excuses for Paul Thomas Anderson. The old justifications, such as "He makes great films, unless you're stupid enough to expect them to make sense or be satisfying," don't work anymore.
Let's just say it: Boring an audience with a pointless, meandering story does not constitute brazen defiance against the tyranny of narrative. Nor is it particularly courageous to stretch a fragile premise to a numbing, deadening 148 minutes — at least not when you can count on a sea of apologists to mistake length for importance and redefine all your weaknesses as virtues.
The talent is there. It's always there with Anderson, and it's there in Inherent Vice, in flashes. Anderson has a sensibility, a particular sense of humor, a way of looking at life that could slant and enliven a good screenplay, if he ever were to write another one or, better yet, find one.
Inherent Vice is based on Thomas Pynchon's novel of the same name, a kind of faux Los Angeles noir. The "faux" might make it sound ideal for Anderson, in that the story is unimportant, just a framework for his invention. In fact, that's the problem. He would have been better off adapting a novel that's strong where he's weak, not strong where he's strong, and weak where he's weak.
Joaquin Phoenix, whose recent mission seems to be to convince audiences that they're going deaf, plays Doc, a hippie detective in 1970 who smokes pot and mumbles a lot. An ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) shows up one evening and asks him to investigate a creepy situation involving a rich, Jewish neo-Nazi businessman (Eric Roberts) and his cheating wife. And this is enough to begin Doc's investigation, which is also an investigation into the Los Angeles underworld, right around the time that '60s idealism was curdling into something more tired, drugged and disillusioned.
Without the safety net of narrative, Anderson puts himself in a difficult position of having to win over the viewer scene by scene. He's further hemmed in by a central character who doesn't have much of a stake in the action. So no one really cares all that much, not Doc, not Anderson, not even Pynchon.
And yet — this is what's frustrating about Anderson — even weighed down by the cement overcoat of his own script, tricky source material and a lead actor with rocks in his mouth, Anderson stays afloat roughly half the time. Josh Brolin has a funny scene or two, and Jena Malone is hilarious in one scene in which she reminisces about meeting her husband. Joanna Newsom has a poignancy and fragility as the narrator.
To be sure, there's something here — an authentic feeling, a sense of loss — but it's buried under sloppy work and an unjustifiable running time. Anderson has not yet found the right balance between inspiration and discipline, and pretending that he has only does him a disservice. He needs to find it.