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Arts and Culture

No Surprise, 'Inherent Vice' Adaptation Is Dense And Complicated

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson is known for dense, complicated movies like "There Will Be Blood." Novelist Thomas Pynchon writes dense, complicated books like "Gravity's Rainbow." So what happens when Hollywood puts these two together for a drug-fueled caper comedy called "Inherent Vice?" Critic Bob Mondello says, no surprise, it's dense and complicated.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The year is 1970. The place - a beach town in Southern California with the laid-back feel of a hippie haven. Doc, a long-haired private eye, is lying stoned on his couch at midday when he sees what seems to be a vision - his ex looking radiant and almost unrecognizable.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INHERENT VICE")

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Doc) You Shasta?

MONDELLO: She was a flower child.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INHERENT VICE")

KATHERINE WATERSTON: (As Shasta) Thinks he's hallucinating.

MONDELLO: Now she's cleaned up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INHERENT VICE")

PHOENIX: (As Doc) Package, I guess.

MONDELLO: And he's psyched until it turns out this isn't just a social call.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INHERENT VICE")

WATERSTON: (As Shasta) I need your help, Doc.

PHOENIX: (As Doc) You know, I have an office now.

WATERSTON: (As Shasta) Almost went over there, then I thought better for everyone if this looks like a secret rendezvous.

PHOENIX: (As Doc) Somebody keeping a close eye?

WATERSTON: (As Shasta) Just spent an hour on surface streets trying make it look good.

MONDELLO: OK. She's got his attention and ours. Turns out Shasta's got a billionaire boyfriend named Wolfmann whose wife is plotting with her boyfriend to consign him to a loony bin. As soon as Shasta tells Doc this, she disappears. So does Wolfmann, and when Doc starts poking around...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INHERENT VICE")

PHOENIX: (As Doc): So where would I find him?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: He's technically Jewish, but wants to be a Nazi.

MONDELLO: He gets knocked out cold and wakes up next to the corpse of Wolfmann's bodyguard which would be less alarming if there weren't a whole other scheme afoot involving a jazz band, anti-communist subversives, a separately missing hubby, a purple-suited dentist, a teen runaway, a drug cartel called the Golden Fang and a detective named Bigfoot who likes to order Swedish pancakes in a Japanese restaurant.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INHERENT VICE")

JOSH BROLIN: (As Bigfoot) (Foreign language spoken).

MONDELLO: We are as weird as all this becomes, still in film noir territory. But Thomas Pynchon's novel soaked the story enough in recreational drugs to give the noir a psychedelic tinge, and the movie has a manic quality with Joaquin Phoenix's Doc snorting or smoking every substance that comes his way while trying to get lucky with the attractive ex-girlfriends and erotic dancers he's interrogating and the attractive law enforcement agent who's interrogating him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INHERENT VICE")

REESE WITHERSPOON: (As Deputy Kimball) Would you be willing to let me depone you?

PHOENIX: (As Doc) Sure would.

WITHERSPOON: (As Deputy Kimball) You would?

PHOENIX: (As Doc) What is it?

MONDELLO: That's Reese Witherspoon he is misunderstanding, and he's equally perplexed by Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, Martin Short and, especially, Josh Brolin as Detective Bigfoot, each of whom is addled by drugs or by circumstances. Does their being addled add up? Well, Director P.T. Anderson isn't generally a guy you go to if you're looking for answers. Questions are more his game, and that's as true here as it was in his far more serious pictures "The Master" and "There Will Be Blood." He is a terrific stylist, though, and the scattershot pleasures he's peddling in "Inherent Vice" may well satisfy those who like style more than substance, or maybe who like their style with substances. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.