Promoted as the first ever screen adaptation of a novel by reclusive author Thomas Pynchon (a debatable claim, although it’s the first with his seal of approval), Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to his coldly overpraised There Will Be Blood and The Master is a mightily epic, brain-fogged ode to the end of the 60s that almost dares you to make sense of it.
Promoted as the first ever screen adaptation of a novel by reclusive author Thomas Pynchon (a debatable claim, although it’s the first with his seal of approval), Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to his coldly overpraised There Will Be Blood and The Master is a mightily epic, brain-fogged ode to the end of the 60s that almost dares you to make sense of it. Star-stuffed to bursting, and full of gorgeously druggy detail, it’s a two-and-a-half hour saga focussing upon a pot-headed protagonist who seems barely able to string two words together, understand why his girlfriend left him (or did she?) or understand what the hell happened to the old LA, and yet, like Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, he isn’t a man to be underestimated either. Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix from Anderson’s The Master, although it was nearly Robert Downey Jr) is a private investigator in the fictional community of Gordita Beach back in 1970, and one night he’s approached by his ex, the luminous Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Shasta is concerned that her new boyfriend, real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), is being screwed over by his money-hungry wife (Serena Scott Thomas), and Doc takes the case while also agreeing to help Tariq Kahlil (Michael K Williams), a member of the Black Guerrilla Family who’s looking for Glen Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson), an Aryan Brotherhood member who might be one of Wolfmann’s henchmen. Doc’s initial investigation take him to a real estate development where he’s knocked out, framed and eventually questioned by feared Detective Christian F ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) and his attorney, Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), who label him ‘hippie scum’ (the Manson murders haunt the proceedings), but Doc isn’t impressed, and somehow agrees to take on yet another (unrelated?) case. It’s at this point that the narrative seriously starts to splinter, with ex-junkie Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) in search of her missing husband Coy (Owen Wilson), Doc learning of a boat, a building and maybe a cult called the ‘Golden Fang’ while using his improbable current girlfriend Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon, Phoenix’s co-star from Walk The Line) to get information, and still more stars turning up in wild and wacky cameos (and perhaps Pynchon himself is in there too – but no one knows what he looks like, so good luck finding him). Although drawn from Pynchon’s funny, impenetrable book, Anderson apparently also took inspiration from the sources you’d expect (film noir classics like Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Sleep, for example) and some you wouldn’t, including Zucker Brothers comedies like The Naked Gun, the forgotten underground comic strip The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and even Cheech And Chong’s Up In Smoke. While this seems to be about the dying days of the hippie dream, it seems that Doc didn’t get the memo. Or did he? Is that the reason why he’s so out of it all the time? Is that why he can’t seem to keep his life, his anger or his libido under control? And is that the reason why he’s allowed his mutton chops to grow to such terrifying proportions? Like crazy, man.