Comparing Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice - the first Pynchon novel to be filmed, no less - with the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski is absolutely the laziest conceivable opening gambit the reviewer of the former film could engage in, but it has the merit of being inevitable. Both films are shaggy mysteries which are more interested in capturing a vibe than in carefully laying out the actual mechanics of the plot (though neither is insoluble, despite Inherent Vice having already picked up that reputation); both are stoner comedies for sober people; both are set in southern California. Both pivot on characters whose attitude towards life, rules, the Establishment, and drug use was forged in the '60s and left them stranded once the '60s ended; The Big Lebowski, set in the early 1990s, plays this for fish-out-of-water comedy, while Inherent Vice, set in 1970, allows a hint of melancholy to pervade its depiction of the death spasms of the counterculture.

The biggest difference between them, and it is the reason I have really bothered comparing them at all, is that at 117 minutes, The Big Lebowski is the longest that its loose-limbed hang-out attitude and laconic comedy can conceivably support (it is, in fact, one of the only Coen films that I think could do with some merciless trimming); whereas Inherent Vice is 148 minutes long, and no. Just no. There's nothing about this film that demand that kind of space and certainly nothing that benefits from it. Anderson hasn't been a particularly disciplined filmmaker at any point in his career - the only one of his films that absolutely cannot be any shorter is Punch-Drunk Love, which also happens to be his only other comedy - but this breaks new ground in dithering around pointlessly.

That being said, the parts of Inherent Vice that work are pretty terrific stuff: Anderson, his cast, and his crew have thrown themselves into the task of recreating their fictitious corner of 1970 Los Angeles with aplomb, resulting in some of the most invitingly tangible sets (designed by David Crank), costumes (Mark Bridges), and even hairpieces of the year: it has the scruffy, organic feeling like some lost corner of America that was permitted to rest unchanging for four decades, until the filmmakers came along to document it. In the lead role of "Doc" Sportello, well-practiced marijuana smoker and surprisingly dogged private eye, Joaquin Phoenix provides a splendid companion piece to his performance in Anderson's last film, The Master, once again capturing a particular moment in the history of American anomie with miraculous precision, this time playing his character's alienation from the mainstream with warmth and self-knowledge rather than as a horrifying blank. As one of the only people to get an appreciable amount of screentime, and certainly the only person for whom that screentime tops one-fifth of the total film, Phoenix's attitude and ability to inhabit the "whatever, man" flow of the befuddling story with its low stakes is the anchor for the viewer to find a way in. And thus he does.

All of which is as much to say: if Inherent Vice was just a simple little shaggy dog story, content to let us chill with Doc and enjoy his worldview, it could be great; even as a detective comedy, it could still be pretty great (The Big Lebowski proves that), with the unkempt storytelling ironically commenting on the complexity of the story and Doc's ability to remain true to himself and his values while being buffeted by social change funneled through this one crime story. It's certainly a solid enough riff on film noir, with its sardonic treatment of sex, its panoply of warped character names, and the procedural narration delivered by one of Doc's buddies, Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), with a twangy lack of urgency that ends up being the film's subtlest joke. But Inherent Vice is not remotely simple, containing two full acts that it doesn't require (for all I know they might kill on the page - I haven't read the book - but the pacing of a novel and the pacing of a film aren't identical, or even comparable), and yo-yoing between characters and situations without stitching them together. Coupled with the fact that the film is a who's who of distracting cameos - Josh Brolin and Owen Wilson have large enough parts to feel like characters, but Reese Witherspoon, Bencio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, and Eric Roberts are only some of the people who come in and out so quickly that by the time they're gone, one is still processing that they showed up in the first place - Inherent Vice never feels like more than a collection of individual anecdotes assembled into a narrative framework. Given the story, and especially given the attitude of laid-back disinterest with which the film approaches its story, that's not even an inappropriate strategy for following Doc around, but what it certainly doesn't do is make the two and a half hours feel and swifter. And it kills the sense of comedy; the longer Inherent Vice goes on, the harder it becomes to laugh at what turns out to be a fairly small repertoire of jokes.

Still, the film's charms and strengths are undeniable and they're certainly not very common. The lusciously grainy celluloid cinematography, by Robert Elswit, isn't all that complicated, but the roughness it adds to the film gives it a sense of period-appropriate decay, even though there's nothing about the lighting or framing that necessarily states "this looks like '70s cinematography". The use of music is, unsurprisingly for this director, right on point: a collection of familiar but not overused singer-songwriter pieces that enhance the zoned out feel of being stoned that the movie has such a fun time evoking in such quiet ways. And the dialogue, which I gather to be taken directly from Pynchon in most places, has a snappy bite that draws out some great line deliveries from the whole ensemble, though Brolin, as an irritable cop and sometime antagonist, is pretty undeniably having the most fun chomping his way through the script.

It's all awfully enjoyable, breezy and melancholy and neatly attuned to how culture changes and what happens to the people that get left behind when it does; but none of it is enhanced by the bloated last hour, or the logy overall pace. It's simply not deep enough to justify its own enormousness, and the one thing that a lark like this absolutely cannot survive being is boring; that's exactly what eventually happens to it.