Inherent Vice might have been more fun if it had been played a little straighter. Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel, set in the L.A. beach-town culture of 1970, is a stoned shaggy-dog story that's fat with pulp-fiction signifiers: snarling cops, neo-Nazi bikers, Indochinese drug smugglers, and, best of all, the Golden Fang—which could be either a mysterious red-sailed schooner, a shadowy international heroin cartel, or a syndicate of coked-up dentists.
Pynchon didn't pretend that any of this added up to much, which was fine—we enjoyed his taffy-pull prose and his little hipster jokes. But writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson doesn't take Pynchon's story seriously either—a considerable misjudgment, I'd say. Pause for a moment to recall Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie that parodied the conventions of pulp thrillers, but also functioned as one—it didn't let its parody take the place of its story. Anderson simply lays out Pynchon's giddy plot elements and invites us to join him in admiring them. He's unflaggingly faithful to the novel, but the result—in terms of narrative involvement and simple entertainment—isn't much of a movie. (Although at a run-time of two and a half hours, it's also too much of one.)