Joaquin Phoenix counts the number of people in the theater.
(2014) Mystery (Warner Brothers) Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Eric Roberts, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jordan Christian Hearn, Jeannie Berlin, Joanna Newsom, Hong Chau, Michelle Sinclair, Elaine Tan, Martin Donovan, Erica Sullivan, Sasha Pieterse. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Those of a certain age will remember the hippie movement of the late 60s and early 70s. The flower children whose innocence combined with rampant drug use and sexual experimentation and some new age noodling ended up making them targets for ridicule in the 80s and beyond. Long haired sorts blissed out on whatever drug of choice was handy, smiling beatifically and mouthing pseudo-philosophical aphorisms of pseudo-depth that were in the end senseless became something of a cultural stereotype, but in truth they did believe in love and peace, which has to be better than believing in money and war.
Larry “Doc” Sportello (Phoenix) is a private eye living in Manhattan Beach – called Gordita Beach here – in 1970. Sporting mutton chops that both Wolverine and a British sailor from the 1820s would envy, he is mainly content to work on such cases that came in to his office that he shares with dentists and the rest of the time, smoke pot and hang out with his latest lady friends who at the moment happens to be Assistant D.A. Penny Kimball (Witherspoon). Life is pretty sweet.
Into his life comes an ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Waterston). She happens to be having an affair with big-time L.A. developer Mickey Wolfmann (Roberts) and who has been undergoing some sort of guilt trip, possibly brought on by heroin addiction. He has surrounded himself with neo-Nazi bikers which is interesting since he himself is Jewish. His wife and her boyfriend want to put Mickey away in a sanitarium and throw away the key by which means they’ll gain control over his fortune. Shasta Fay begs Doc to look into it and Doc, being the last of the knights errant, agrees to. Shasta Fay promptly disappears.
I could tell you how the rest of the story goes but it won’t make sense. It is, after all, based on a Thomas Pynchon novel. However, I will say that there is an ambitious cop named Bigfoot (Brolin) who may be a staunch ally of Doc or setting him up for a murder charge – or maybe both, an Indonesian heroin cartel laundering their money through a consortium of dentists called The Golden Fang, a saxophone player (Wilson) and heroin addict who has disappeared, leaving his wife (Malone) frantic, a shady Hispanic lawyer (del Toro) and a sweet but scatter-brained assistant who narrates the movie (Newsom).
In the interests of fairness, there are a lot of people whom I respect that really liked this movie a lot but for me, this is more like The Master than There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s worst and best films to date (although I must admit Boogie Nights comes close to the latter). I can understand why they liked the movie – the visual style, the well-written dialogue (with Pynchon you can’t go wrong in that regard) and the performances but this is one of those movies that depends on excess but sometimes, more is way too much.
Like most Paul Thomas Anderson movies, this meanders all over hell and gone, following one thread until it gets played out or Anderson gets bored with it and then suddenly switching to another. Keeping track of who is allied with who is apt to cause your brain to spontaneously ignite into flames. Don’t bother because it doesn’t really matter much in the end anyway.
The thing is that Anderson (like Pynchon before him) is doing a kind of stoner noir here, a hard-bitten detective story with a soft-chewing hippie detective. You’ll smell the intoxicating mix of patchouli, marijuana smoke and incense blending together at the same time as you feel like you’re in a stoners apartment in which a fine layer of ash coats everything and every container possible has stubbed out cigarette butts and the counter tops faint signs of cocaine lines left behind. Both Da Queen and I felt the squalor permeating our skin and exited the theater into the cool night air, relieved to be breathing in something fresh and unadulterated by intoxicants.
Phoenix and Brolin are fine actors, Oscar nominees both. Phoenix does befuddled about as well as anybody and he plays stoned perhaps better than anybody save Seth Rogen. He captures the part of Doc about as well as anybody’s going to without doing the copious amounts of weed that Doc does during the film – and who knows, maybe he did. Brolin on the other hand plays the flat topped brush cut cop who wants to be the next Jack Webb but is more likely to be the most recent Martin Milner. He’s the best part of the movie, partially comic relief but not always.
We get that people did a lot of drugs in the 70s. We don’t have to see them light up in every fucking scene, take a long drag, and then proceed with the scene. I would estimate that about 20 minutes of the two and a half hour run time is devoted to watching people go through the mechanics of smoking dope and cigarettes and it gets monotonous. So too does the story, which meanders from place to place, becoming maddeningly interesting but just when it’s about to, takes off on another tangent with the previous story elements never to reappear again. Eventually the last 30 minutes the film picks up steam and for that reason the movie isn’t getting the first Zero rating this site has ever given out but it came damn close.
I get the sense that Paul Thomas Anderson’s ego wrote checks that this movie didn’t have the funds to cash and I’m not talking budget here. Pynchon as a writer has a delightful command of language and to Anderson’s credit as the screenwriter adapting his work, he does try to utilize that in the script where he can. Sadly, both Pynchon and Anderson are guilty of the same kinds of excesses – one in literature, the other in cinema – and the two don’t make a good match.
I’ve always admired Anderson for his creativity and for making movies that don’t conform to any standards, but that is a double edged sword and the blade is cutting deep here. Whereas There Will Be Blood is damn near a masterpiece, this is kind of a sordid mess that never really manages to get going and throws so many characters at you that pretty soon you begin confusing one longhair for another. That’s never a good sign. I had hopes that the combination of Pynchon and Anderson might yield up a great movie. Some folks may argue that it did. I would contend that it did not.
REASONS TO GO: You can always walk out.
REASONS TO STAY: Way long. Dwells on minutiae too much. Watching stoners being stoned is about as entertaining as watching mimes at work.
FAMILY VALUES: Near-constant drug use and profanity. Some violence. There’s also a good deal of sexual content and occasional graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time that Rudolph has appeared in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. The two have been a couple for more than a decade.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Forbidden Zone
FINAL RATING: 1/10
NEXT: Listen Up, Philip