'Inherent Vice': What the Critics Are Saying

Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone and more compose Paul Thomas Anderson's drug haze

Inherent Vice spotlights Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello, the drug-hazed private investigator navigating a couple convoluted crime queries in 1970s Los Angeles. Paul Thomas Anderson's ensemble adaptation of the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel — also featuring Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Michael Kenneth Williams, Maya Rudolph and Martin Short, among others — opened in limited theaters earlier this month and expands wide Jan. 9.

Read what top critics are saying about Inherent Vice:

The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy writes, "Only fitfully does the film manage the kind of liftoff as that achieved by Pynchon's often riotous 2009 novel and, most disappointingly, it offers a only a pale and narrow physical re-creation of such a vibrant place and time. ... Anderson has contrived to cook Pynchon's sprawling yarn down to its dramatic essence, even if some wonderful interludes, such as a side trip to Vegas, are sorely missed. Still, viewers coming to this material cold will find it pretty daunting to connect all the dots. This means that what really counts here, as in a head-scratching classic like The Big Sleep, is the sizzle of individual scenes, the atmosphere, the innuendo, the electricity between the characters and actors. In this regard, Inherent Vice is intermittently successful but only up to a point. ... Perhaps the biggest disappointment about the film is the relative absence of Los Angeles as a major physical character."

Read more Paul Thomas Anderson's Ensemble on the Chaotic Logic of 'Inherent Vice'

Regarding Doc Sportello, "Who else could have played the part today is unclear, but Phoenix, for all his skill playing more serious roles in the likes of Walk the Line, Her and The Master, doesn't possess this sort of levity or mutability of spirit. He's a strong enough performer to center the film and hold it together, but he lacks the elastic face (especially beneath his big mutton chops) and bemused eyes that might have made the character more accessible and amusing." Witherspoon "plays it primly and disapprovingly efficient until she lets her hair down and gets stoned one night at his place," but "eventually Waterston assumes centerstage" while "Brolin and Wilson are both strong as very odd characters indeed." Still, "as always with Anderson, the soundtrack is of great interest, first of all for its relative lack of predictable oldies-but-goodies from the period. The often intriguing and offbeat song interpolations gradually give way to increasing use of long stretches of original dramatic music by Anderson stalwart Jonny Greenwood, which proves quite effective toward the end."

The New York Times' Manohla Dargis notes, "Anderson has condensed the book with surgical precision, ditching certain subplots, characters and locales while retaining the novel’s sociopolitical tug, barbed asides and chokingly funny details. In a nice genre twist, he has also added a female narrator, Joanna Newsom as Sortilège, who helps offset all the peekaboo miniskirts. Phoenix’s note-perfect performance flows on the story’s currents of comedy that occasionally turn into rapids, as the funny ha-ha, funny strange back-and-forth abruptly gives way to Three Stooges slapstick: a bonk on the head, a kick in the rear, a fired gun, a busted-down door. Anderson’s softly lighted close-ups of Doc’s face dovetail beautifully with Phoenix’s astonishing gift for heart-heavy vulnerability."

The New Yorker's Anthony Lane says, "Anyone who prizes the book for its treasure chest of jokes will be gratified by how many of them survive onscreen. ... Phoenix is so befogged with weed that he seems to gust along inside his own personal weather system, although he’s impressively out-doped by Wilson, with his narrow-eyed, inward stare, not to mention those long and lazy vowels. Meanwhile, from the pack of speakers shuffling through the book, the one that Anderson, in his wittiest move, picks to provide the voice-over for the film is Sortilège, an astrologer who hangs out at the beach. Believe me, narrators do not come more unreliable than that. ... [Brolin] all but commandeers Inherent Vice, releasing a stab of energy amid the haze of hippies." Altogether, "Anderson has done Pynchon proud, but, at moments like this, you want him to leave the writer’s orbit and follow his own strange star."

Read more 'Inherent Vice' Cast Reveals What It's Like to Work With Joaquin Phoenix

Los Angeles Times' Betsy Sharkey explains, "Trying to pare back Pynchon without killing the joke was the challenge. Anderson has done a remarkable job of replicating the crazy kaleidoscope of crime, dope and raunch the novelist conjured. ... For all of its darker themes, the movie never loses its wicked sense of humor. The mere idea of nefarious dentists is a hoot. Casting Short as the tooth trade's main piece of scum is inspired. ... [It's] Pynchon and Anderson at their funniest, loosest and most accessible. The cast seems to thoroughly enjoy being in on the joke." Plus, "Phoenix and the terrific acting ensemble that joins him in this pot-infused '70s-era beach noir create such a good buzz you can almost get a contact high from watching. ... Phoenix does stoned exceedingly well."

New York Post's Kyle Smith asserts, "Inherent Vice, meandering even by Anderson’s standards, is easily the worst of his movies, a soporific 2 1/2-hour endurance test. ... Mostly the film is a hazy, backlit stoner vision filigreed with half-hearted comedy and an occasional reference to the End of the Hippie Dream. (Which was never not ending: Even the ur-hippie movie, Easy Rider, summed itself up in the thought, “We blew it.”) ... Five minutes after it ends, you won’t remember the resolution, mainly because Anderson is too cowardly to take a chance by actually saying something."