(director/writer: Paul Thomas Anderson; screenwriters: based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon; cinematographer: Robert Elswit; editor: Leslie Jones; music: Johnny Greenwood; cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Doc Sportello), Josh Brolin (Bigfoot Bjornsen), Owen Wilson (Coy Harlingen), Katherine Waterston (Shasta Fay Hepworth), Reese Witherspoon (Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball), Benicio Del Toro (Sauncho Smilax, Esq.), Martin Short (Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd), Jena Malone (Hope Harlingen), Michael Kenneth Williams (Tariq Khalil), Joanna Newsom (Sortilège), Eric Roberts (Michael Z. Wolfmann), Hong Chau (Jade), Yvette Yates (Luz), Maya Rudolph (Petunia Leeway), Sasha Pieterse (Japonica Fenway), Jeannie Berlin (Aunt Reet), Serena Scott Thomas (Sloane), Christopher Allen Nelson (Glenn Charlock); Runtime: 148; MPAA Rating: R; producers: JoAnne Sellar, Daniel Lupi, Paul Thomas Anderson; Warner Bros.; 2014)
“Viewers looking for a coherent narrative won’t find it in this chaotic film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling counterculture novel of the 1970s, written in 2009, is directed and written by the gifted Paul Thomas Anderson(“There Will Be Blood”/”Boogie Nights”/”The Master”) with mixed results. At least Anderson has the honor of being the first filmmaker to have Pynchon’s approval to adapt one of his novels to the screen. Viewers looking for a coherent narrative won’t find it in this chaotic film.
It’s set in 1970. It plays out as a doper version of Raymond Chandler private eye stories. The lead character is a stoner, film buff, beach bum at California’s Gordita Beach, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). He appears surprised that his former hippie girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterson), who dumped him, shows up at his beach bungalow needing his help. Shasta tells a bizarre tale about her current lover, a billionaire LA real estate magnate, (Michael Z. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who vanished, and how his repulsive wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) has schemed to take all his money.
When Doc investigates, he encounters Aryan Brotherhood bikers (bodyguards for Mickey), a black militant ex-con (Michael Kenneth Williams), an erotic housekeeper (Yvette Yates), his marine law attorney (Benicio Del Toro), hippies, hustlers, dopers, rockers, an ex-con Aryan biker (Christopher Allen Nelson), a killer loan-shark, a bullying square-jawed hippie hating LAPD detective named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), a government snitch sax player in a rock band (Owen Wilson), a Chick Planet massage parlor fronting as a brothel and laundering operation for a heroin cartel, and a heroin smuggling ship, the Golden Fang, that might be only an enterprise used by a group of dentists as a tax dodge.
The narrative is so nutty it could be the remnants of a bad trip, as it enters a comical take on police corruption, murder, kidnapping, doper paranoia and flawed characters who have all sorts of perversions in an America that turns its idealism into tawdry materialism. The pic follows no logical story-line, as each new character introduced takes us on its own trip. Filled with raunchy sight gags, enough screen weed smoke to make the viewer get a contact high, offering a look at LA in a different light, and with the artistic lighting in the final act serving up a sendoff of a mesmerizing trip.
Reece Witherspoon plays Doc’s current deputy DA girlfriend. Martin Short is the doper front man dentist for the Golden Fang. Hong Chau is the masseuse in the Chick Planet parlor.
Though compelling in a hallucinatory way, Pynchon’s book is just not adaptable to the screen and it’s hard to find it entirely enjoyable except as a doper curio. It’s The Big Sleep on drugs, with a sneaky commentary meshed in about the failed American Dream.
REVIEWED ON 1/20/2016 GRADE: B-