Paul Thomas Anderson’s (Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love) private investigator noir evokes Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, but instead of Elliot Gould as Phillip Marlowe-meets-Jeff Bridges’ “The Dude”, Joaquin Phoenix is all 1970 Southern California hippie, all the time, so “out there” he has to keep a notepad with one word reminders to stay focused. The result is a detective yarn, but through the eyes of a stoner, in parts scintillating and in parts frustrating. If you approach the picture traditionally, you’ll find yourself trying to connect the dots of a plot that seemingly fuses murder, real estate, the FBI, the Las Vegas mob and a drug trade that profits from its customers on the front end and back. However, Phoenix is our guide on this trip (there is no scene without him), and he is unreliable. Two couples walked out of the theater during this movie, and while the thought never occurred to me, I could see it occurring to others. Anderson has a nice cheat at work here: the byzantine plot has promise, but rigor is unnecessary when viewed through the eyes of a doper. When you shake your head, you’re a square and not in on the joke. When you go with the flow, it’s a little tiresome, and at 148 minutes, even boring.
Anderson’s movies look fabulous, and this is no exception. His sundrenched beach LA is almost mystical, and his re-creation of Manson-era, Southern California weirdness is vivid. The picture can also be very funny, with nice contributions from Josh Brolin as a straight-laced, psychologically fragile LAPD detective, and Martin Short as an electric, drug-snorting dentist. Katherine Waterston, as the femme fatale and the only character who seems to ground the picture, is a revelation, mesmerizing and completely believable as the woman who could penetrate even Phoenix’s lazy, listless existence.
Rottentomatoes.com critics gave this picture a 70%, with only a 57% from the audience. There may be a lesson there. Even though Anderson is an auteur commodity, he should consider getting back into traditional storytelling. His last two films –The Master and this – have been beautifully shot and acted yet uninvolving and disaffecting. Phoenix is presented to us as an archetype in both films, without backstory or motivation. As such, it’s hard to care, and that’s a problem.