PI Larry 'Doc' Sportello ambles in a haze of confusion after elusive ex-girlfriends, resurrected saxophone players and bad guys who literally have swastikas tattooed on their faces in Paul Thomas Anderson's fantastically sprawling adaptation of the 2007 Thomas Pynchon novel. The plethora of cases, names, faces and agendas is bewildering. In one scene Doc, trying to connect the cases, sits (joint in hand) in front of a whiteboard covered with incoherent scrawls of names. By this point in the film the audience can identify with that feeling entirely.
Inherent Vice is visually beautiful, using disembodied senses to evoke its sultry film noir melancholy. The colours are luridly neon, the voices mostly confined to a seductive murmur, particularly in the drawling, tongue-in-cheek philosophising of narrator Sortilège. It is difficult to find something more tangible to hold on to, though; the visual is often obscured through a haze of smoke, and the narrative is just as difficult to grasp.
It's so easy to get swept along in the meandering, entertaining plot and its protagonist's baffled humour that the sinister undertones of the film’s power struggle go unnoticed. The turning point comes at the unexpected return of Shasta, aforementioned ex-girlfriend. Katherine Waterston's commanding presence has previously given even this vulnerable character an unshakeable sense of control; with her psychologically-charged submission, the film suddenly swerves into a darker terrain. It loses its vibrant colours, slapstick violence becomes real and bloody, and the audience is forced to feel a little uneasy in any humour that follows.
A bewilderingly varying portrayal of sexuality and the looseness of its narrative are Inherent Vice's main problems – its rambling pace borders on frustrating beyond the two-hour mark – but as a whole it remains just endearingly incoherent enough to charm its way around them.