I've never read the work of Thomas Pynchon, but I understand it to be incredibly dense, packed with far-out ideas, and, while brilliant, definitely not for the casual reader. If that's true, then I assume Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Pynchon's 2009 novel Inherent Vice is very faithful to the book.
A marijuana-fueled riff on the detective genre, the 1970-set Inherent Vice follows pothead private eye Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, terrific as usual) on the trail of a mystery that leads to another mystery that leads to another mystery still. With a new character being introduced every few minutes and everything from real estate swindles to vast right-wing conspiracies factoring into the loopy scenario, Sportello, thanks to his paranoid, weed-addled brain, is able to identify the hidden connections – and then shrug them off as needed.
Inherent Vice is one of those movies that, like The Big Lebowski and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, may strike you as genius if you have a certain familiarity with controlled substances. For the rest of us, it just kind of wears you out. Well-acted by an enviable ensemble of fresh faces and celebrity cameos (which almost makes the film veer towards a Southland Tales-like silliness, except that Southland Tales is an awful film made by an incompetent filmmaker, and this is not), Inherent Vice is likely to disappoint anyone expecting either a fun-loving stoner movie or an enthralling mystery. The film has a lot of other things on its mind, and it doesn't care whether you follow along or not.
Although I saw more people walking out on this movie than I had in years – blame the lackadaisical pace paired with the increasingly convoluted plot – I thought Inherent Vice was okay. I have no desire to ever see it again, but I admire the performances, the long, no-frills takes, the general look and feel of the thing, and its authenticity (the film actually feels like it itself is high). It reminded me of Robert Altman's laid-back 1973 mystery The Long Goodbye – no surprise, since Anderson is an Altman acolyte of the highest order.
Although I think I "got" the film – for the most part, anyway – it's possible for a work of art to succeed at everything it intends to do, yet still do nothing for you personally. That's how I feel about Inherent Vice.