Inherent Vice is a confounding mess, void of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s (There Will Be Blood) trademark style and full of the foggy haze of dope smoking and double crosses. This is the kind of movie people see, hate and then listen to critics tell them “they didn’t get it.” Well, here’s one critic who didn’t get it either.

Based on the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, the story follows private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he searches for his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterson) and her new boyfriend Mickey (Eric Roberts). The belief is that Mickey’s wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and the wife’s boyfriend sent Mickey to an asylum so they can make off with his millions.

As Doc starts looking, chaos, misdirection, sidesteps, tangents and detours ensue, so much so that they become what the movie is about, and those aren’t good things for a movie to be about. Doc is in the middle of it all the entire time, but in the middle of what, exactly? We only know what Doc knows; the problem is even Doc doesn’t know what he knows, and he’s so frequently smokin’ dope it’s hard to trust him when he thinks he’s right. He’s doesn’t discover the resolution so much as he falls into it after a series of vague clues from the surplus of supporting characters. Joaquin Phoenix is always a compelling actor to watch, and it’s a tricky thing to play a lost soul, but too much is lost here for the film’s own good.

One gets the sense Anderson stayed too loyal to his source material and didn’t excise enough for the sake of cinematic storytelling. This is the seventh feature film from Anderson, and he’s trending downward. Boogie Nights was a brilliant work that thrust him onto the scene in 1997, followed by the ambitious Magnolia (1999) and later the masterpiece There Will Be Blood (2007). But with The Master (2011) and now Inherent Vice he seems to be losing his way. Whereas his films used to tell thought-provoking stories with bold visuals, intricate camera movements and smart dialog, lately he’s abandoned those tenets for simpler visuals and unclear narratives (if you can tell me what he was trying to say with The Master, please do). Why he’s chosen to get away from what made him successful is anyone’s guess, but for his fans it’s frustrating to watch a misstep like Inherent Vice when they know how good he can be.

It has to be disappointing for the actors too. They know Anderson is a born auteur, and flock to work with him because they trust he’ll make them look good and the project will be special. Only a few directors can claim this draw (Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese), so the least Anderson could do is keep the tone consistent for all his players.

Phoenix toes the line between comedy and drama, but Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, and Jena Malone seem to think it’s a drama, while Josh Brolin, Martin Short and Benicio Del Toro seem to think it’s a comedy. It can’t be both, and the random oddball humor doesn’t fit as comic relief. It’s all over the place and nowhere at the same time.

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Perhaps there was something I didn’t understand about Inherent Vice. Maybe there’s something to all the drugs, nudity and weirdness that will speak to others in a way that it didn’t speak to me, because this is for sure: What I did understand didn’t work at all. Let’s hope this is just a rough patch and he’s not going the way of M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense). The real shame would be if watching an Anderson film became one of our inherent vices.

INHERENT VICE (1 1/2) Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson • Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterson • Rated R • 148 mins. • At Century Cinemas Del Monte.

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