The Wicked Virtues of “Inherent Vice” Almost Conquer the Sins of the Script

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)

I recently read Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice. Here is my review, from the book aggregator site Goodreads: “This was my first Pynchon novel, and I suspect that had I wanted to really get a sense of the writer I should have tackled Gravity’s Rainbow first. Or not. A detective thriller with a stoned P.I. (private investigator) as its protagonist was not at all what I expected from a man I associated (through hearsay) with dense and complex narratives. But then I started reading, and this multi-layered text, rich in historic detail (the setting is early 1970s Los Angeles just after the Sharon Tate murders, where hippies and straights collide), began rather quickly to draw me in by the way its author so cleverly inserted deep societal insights into an ostensibly popular fiction genre. The book is a marvel in its skilled marriage of commerce and art. I loved it, and I can’t wait for the movie to come out in a few weeks.”

Given that reaction to the book, perhaps my hopes for the movie adaptation, by American auteur director Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master), were too high (the marvelous trailer helped raise those expectations, as well). To say that I was disappointed would be inaccurate, since I enjoyed much of the film. It’s just that where Pynchon manages to have his hash brownie and eat it, too, beautifully wrapping up the loose narrative by the end, Anderson seems to have no interest in tying up his own loose ends. If, however, you are a fan of the director’s more recent work, and liked The Master and There Will Be Blood, then you may not have the same issues that I have with Anderson’s new movie. I like my chaos contained, at least at some point; Anderson, as he has gotten older, prefers his mayhem unfettered, eschewing the discipline of his earlier (to me, far more masterful) works like Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Still, I admire the risks he takes, as well as the way he works with actors, all of whom are in fine form here. For quite a while, the virtues outweigh the vices, and watching the manic energy on display is a treat, indeed.

A magnificent Joaquin Phoenix (Her) plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, a hippie sleuth-for-hire in Los Angeles whose ex-girlfriend Shasta – played by Katherine Waterston (Glass Chin), daughter of Sam, with a disturbing mix of childlike vulnerability and sexuality – shows up one day, out of the blue, asking for his help to thwart the planned kidnapping of her new lover, a sleazy real-estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann. Whatever else Doc may be – stoner, hippie, etc. – he takes his job seriously, and stills cares for Shasta, so he is soon sniffing around the less savory (rich and poor) parts of town, looking for clues. It takes him a while to truly get in the game, though – maybe it’s all the pot he constantly smokes – and before he knows what’s happening he’s being jerked around and set up by various parties, including local hotshot cop, “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, played by a Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) in exceedingly top form. Indeed, it is the interactions between Doc and Bigfoot – the hippy and the straight – that give the movie much of its energy and purpose. Representing different sides of the then-culture wars, as well as different sides of the investigative professions, they face off in altercations alternately hostile and quasi-affectionate: they’re frenemies. And in both the book and the movie, they allow author and filmmaker to explore the opposing worldviews of that specific era.

But outside of that central relationship, the film lacks the narrative drive of the novel. I kept wondering, as I watched, whether or not the film would make sense to anyone who hadn’t read Pynchon’s book. Maybe it doesn’t matter as much as I think it does. Rich in lush visual detail, Inherent Vice features additional strong performances (sometimes almost cameos) from a cast that includes Owen Wilson (The Internship), Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Benicio Del Toro (Savages), Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar from “The Wire“), Jena Malone (Into the Wild) and Martin Short (remember him? lately he’s been doing a lot of voice work for animated projects like “The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!“). And while the film meanders from crazy set piece to crazy set piece without much of a coherent connective tissue, as if the director and all involved were, themselves, toking it up throughout production, each of those set pieces is (usually) a lot of fun to watch. Perhaps we are not meant to worry about causality – even though coincidences abound – and should just enjoy the very real pleasures that lie within each scene. Perhaps . . . and yet … I wanted just a little bit more, as I have in other recent Anderson films.

One of the oddest choices in this adaptation is the invention of a narrator. Anderson takes a minor character in the book – a fortune-teller named Sortilège (played in the film by musician Joanna Newsom) – and hands her much of Pynchon’s prose to read as voiceover. On the one hand, it’s possible he realized that his movie needed more structure, and so added these bits of exposition to help explain the fractured narrative. On the other hand, Los Angeles has a long history as the frequent locale of 20th-century hard-boiled fiction, rendered in such classic Hollywood films noir like Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity – which helped launch the world-weary and doomed male narrator we now associate with the genre – that it’s also possible that Anderson is indirectly referencing this past, and flipping it on its head. Whatever his intentions, while there is a definite atmospheric upside to Newsom’s dreamy drawl (which works so beautifully in the aforementioned trailer), much of what she speaks just feels like muddled explanatory text, and only contributes to the overall confusion.

Despite my ambivalence about the movie, however, I found much to like in its strangeness. It is sui generis, that’s for sure, which is certainly a valid reason to recommend it, however qualified that recommendation may be. It’s a mess, but a beautiful one.

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