‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is like a stoned, hippie version of Colombo – in fact, I’ve not seen so many joints smoked onscreen since Seth Rogen and his man-boy droogs were last in town.
It is Los Angeles, 1970. The spectre of Charles Manson still hovers over the weirded-out community, the coppers are bent and brutal and nobody really knows what is going on.
Beginning with The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon (and, more recently, LA Confidential), it has been a given that West Coast crime is a deep and dark sea in which nothing is discerned until you stumble blindly into it. And when a screenplay is based on a novel by the impenetrable Thomas Pynchon, you can be certain that, in keeping with tradition, it will be as clear as mud.
Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) turns up unexpectedly one night to tell him of the plan to kidnap a billionaire businessman.
Shasta herself goes missing soon after, and there is some sort of connection with a saxophonist who is believed to have been killed (Owen Wilson).
By the half-way point of this dawdling movie I did not have the faintest idea of what was going on. But still I watched, beguiled and intrigued by its indulgence, its messiness and, one suspects, its deliberate opaqueness.
Doc is a passive character, blundering from one incident to the next, piecing together the clues to a crime without ever having it clear in his head what that crime is.
To complicate matters even further, a whole string of incidental players appear and disappear, their relationship to Doc and to each other never anything more than vague. If it was writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s intention to baffle he succeeds brilliantly, but you have to ask ‘why?’
Ultimately, as Doc’s investigations are wound up, it’s hard to care one way or the other.
There are some funny bits, but not many, and I wasn’t even sure who the omniscient girly narrator was. Josh Brolin steals the show as Detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen.
~ John Campbell