"Inherent Vice" finds Paul Thomas Anderson working in a somewhat unfamiliar mode, translating the kitschy screwball comedy of Thomas Pynchon's novel to the big screen.

This is material more apt for a Coen Brothers treatment than the auteur behind "The Master" and "There Will Be Blood," though Anderson's "Boogie Nights" has its share of manic humor.

Set in 1970, at the height of Manson-fueled anti-hippie paranoia in Los Angeles, the film follows stoner private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he looks into a fairly incomprehensible plot involving kidnapping, laundering and a crime syndicate called the Golden Fang.

This is an absurdist tone piece that plays on hazy feelings of discomfort and unease, evoking the pervasive sense that things are falling apart even if no one can articulate exactly what that means.

It does so through whispery narration and congested interiors that give way to wide shots stressing the overbearing nature of the Southern California sprawl, plus plenty of word salad passing for dialogue.

The artistic credibility is high, in other words, but the movie loses its way thanks to its wild vacillation between slapstick comedy and stark, emotional drama and the simple fact that two-and-a-half hours of pretty nonsense is a lot to take.

‘Inherent Vice’
Two Stars
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson | Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon | Rated R?