Movie review: Goofy fun in Inherent Vice

Private eye Joaquin Phoenix (left) crosses paths with detective Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, centre). -- PHOTO: WARNER BROS
Private eye Joaquin Phoenix (left) crosses paths with detective Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, centre). -- PHOTO: WARNER BROS

Fun piece filled with cosmic coincidences and elaborate conspiracies

Review Drama

INHERENT VICE (M18)

149 minutes/Opens tomorrow/***1/2

The story: In the Los Angeles of the early 1970s, Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private eye, is visited by ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who tells him about a plot to commit her current boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) to a mental hospital. The gumshoe crosses paths with detective Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a man with a hatred of hippies like Sportello. Adapted from the 2009 novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon.

Imagine a stoner comedy from Seth Rogen and James Franco if both had PhDs in post- modern American literature. Or picture a film noir detective story, viewed through a filter made from golden California sunshine and marijuana fumes.

This is six-time Oscar-nominated director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, 2007; The Master, 2012) taking a break from the heavy stuff and goofing off.

The result is a frequently fun but often frustratingly opaque mood piece, a work that celebrates his hometown of Los Angeles, as well as his fondness for the work of the famously reclusive novelist Pynchon, a writer often referred to as belonging to that cadre of admired writers whose books readers always start but rarely finish.

That Anderson has tackled a Pynchon novel is admirable; that he has managed to produce something that resembles a narrative without sacrificing the Pynchon tone is astounding.

And by tone, we mean the shaggy dog plot, slapstick, onomatopoeia, cosmic coincidences and elaborate conspiracies hidden in plain sight.

Instead of a story that makes sense in the conventional manner, this film luxuriates in mini- setpieces: detective Bjornsen (Brolin) shouting pidgin Japanese at a chef; Dr Rudy Blatnoyd (the always enjoyable Martin Short) getting acquainted with a small hill of white powder; and Doc's (Phoenix's) adviser Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro) purring from the sidelines.

In a work so loosely structured, there is the danger that the cast is there for a good time, except someone forgot to invite the audience. This veers dangerously close to that edge, but Anderson knows to pull back just in time.

Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood on the soundtrack creates a glow that matches the Southern California colours on the screen, while 1960s soul and R&B punctuate the action scenes.

The Oscar voters have given this Anderson work the cold shoulder, awarding it nominations in the lesser categories of Best Adapted Screenplay and Costume Design.

No matter. The amiable, mumbly Sportello, wreathed in a purple haze and sleuthing with his third eye open, is the spiritual brother of the Coen brothers' The Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998). It is only a matter of time before he, like The Dude in the cult favourite, ascends to stoner sainthood.

johnlui@sph.com.sg