Joe Mathews: Has California chronicler lost his way?

Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, right, talks to actor Martin Short on the set of “Inherent Vice.” Joe Mathews says the movie was an incoherent disappointment.
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, right, talks to actor Martin Short on the set of “Inherent Vice.” Joe Mathews says the movie was an incoherent disappointment. AP/Warner Bros. Pictures

Has Hollywood’s foremost interpreter of California lost his touch?

That may seem a strange question to ask now since said interpreter – the writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson – is up for a screenwriting Oscar at Sunday’s Academy Awards. But Anderson’s work often poses strange questions.

Anderson matters because, at age 44, he’s already the greatest California filmmaker ever. That’s a claim based not just on the awards and critical acclaim earned by movies such as “Boogie Nights” and “There Will Be Blood,” but on his relentless focus on California, particularly its more populous and puzzling southern half.

No other living filmmaker has burrowed so deeply into our state and its people. And since Anderson is a child of California, with a particular devotion to his native San Fernando Valley, his films, while fictional, stand out for taking us seriously instead of portraying us as stereotypes.

In his films, we are lost souls, yes, but lovely and noble ones, full of grand plans for reinvention. Adam Sandler, in Anderson’s comedy “Punch-Drunk Love,” hatches a plan to change his life with frequent-flier miles accumulated through huge purchases of pudding. He, like so many Californians, may be nuts. Yet isn’t such nutiness worthy of respect, even forgiveness? Who among us, Anderson’s films seem to ask, has not gotten carried away?

From his earliest movies, Anderson’s forgiving way with his characters rubbed off on this California cinephile. Even when the plot seemed too sprawling (as in “There Will Be Blood”) or the cast too overstuffed with characters (as in “Magnolia”), it was OK. After all, isn’t California too sprawling and too overstuffed with characters?

I rooted for Anderson because I was sure that no one else would attempt such pictures. But forgiveness has its limits.

In his last two films – a 2012 fictionalization of the Scientology story called “The Master,” and his recent adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s doper Hollywood novel “Inherent Vice” – Anderson has tested his audiences’ patience and stoked my anxiety about his ability to keep chronicling this state.

Anderson’s previous movies, while always challenging and sometimes strange, were still audience pleasers. But parts of “The Master” seemed almost contemptuous of viewers, crossing the line from thought-provoking to downright confusing. And his latest, “Inherent Vice,” is a film full of frustrating puzzles that don’t lead anywhere.

During the nearly 21/2-hour running time, I often felt taunted by the filmmaker’s deliberate incoherence. I’ve now watched “Inherent Vice” three times, but feel I understand it less with each viewing. I would recount the plot for you, but it’s frankly beyond me – something about a boat, an ex-girlfriend, a prosecutor, a white supremacist, a jazz saxophonist, a conscience-stricken real estate developer, a police detective and a dentist who dies in a trampoline accident.

Of course, if you don’t care about understanding what’s going on, the film can be enjoyed for its striking visuals (rockers eating pizza in the dining room of a Laurel Canyon house briefly becomes the Last Supper), and a few great lines from Pynchon’s novel, such as: “You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far – then you’ve gotta get back up on the freeway again.”

An inherent vice is a defect in a physical object that causes it to deteriorate because of fundamental instability. Maybe that explains how even the greatest director can crack up. Or maybe, since this crazy film did earn Anderson an Oscar nomination, the fault lies elsewhere.

Or maybe it’s our fault. Maybe it’s that Anderson is mirroring a California that is itself incoherent and has become too nuts to be contained by any one narrative. Could it be that, with the old California dream dead, we’ve lost the plot of this place, and all we have left is a collection of interesting characters who sometimes give us great lines?

Joe Mathews wrote this Connecting California column for Thinking L.A., a project of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.