Inherent Vice: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Pynchon Adaptation Is Not Just for Stoned Detectives

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Monday night, on the next-to-last night of their Sunshine Noir series of films about Los Angeles crime stories, BAM presented a special early screening of the new Paul Thomas Anderson film Inherent Vice. The screening was sold out, and full of Anderson fanatics (mostly men with glasses in their late 20s). Before the screening, scholar Geoffrey O’Brien read a brief piece on the film, which included his opinion that: “This is a film that should be seen without any introduction. It’s best when you just ‘go with the flow,’ as people really did used to say.” How right he was. Inherent Vice is the first film ever adapted from a Thomas Pynchon novel, and has all the loopy forward momentum and dizzyingly expansive plot you might expect from that origin. It was engrossing and often hilarious, as well as confounding; it seemed to take perverse pleasure in denying you a rational through line from scene to scene, which should surprise precisely zero living Pynchon fans. 

The film, set in 1970, follows permanently stoned and be-sandaled Los Angeles private detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who’s just minding his own business one afternoon in classic private dick fashion when his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) strolls into his apartment in an extremely short dress and tells Doc she suspects her new boyfriend, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is about to be ambushed by his wife and her boyfriend, who plan to kidnap him and throw him in a mental institution. Before long, her prediction comes true, and Shasta disappears as well. Doc stumbles his way through an attempt to find them both, sometimes helped and sometimes hindered by Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornson (Josh Brolin), an LAPD detective with a SAG card and ambitions of being a star—we first encounter him dressed in hippie drag in a commercial for a housing development, masterminded (coincidentally?) by Wolfmann. Along the way, Doc meets a dope-dealing dentist (Martin Short); a surfing saxophone player who may be dead—or simply deep undercover spying for anti-left government groups (Owen Wilson); and his own sometimes girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon), a prosecutor who alternates between smoking weed in her underwear with Doc at his apartment and turning him over to the FBI; plentiful narration is by Sortilege (the singer Joanna Newsome), another of Doc’s sort-of-girlfriends. Newsome’s mildly accented narration superimposed over shots of sky and beach, giving way to Phoenix bumbling his way through a shootout or interrogation make the film seem at times like a Terrence Malick-directed version of The Big Lebowski.

Inherent Vice is an unusual thing for the two geniuses that brought it into the world. The Pynchon book, published in 2009 but set in 1970, is an unusual example of that author’s work in a number of ways. First, there’s its light-hearted, winking tone. Then there’s the relatively straightforward detective plot, which stays firmly rooted in one time period and version of reality. Perhaps most surprisingly, there’s also its ambition to actually wrap up most of its mysteries, something fans of Pynchon’s sprawling and usually intentionally incomprehensible works like Gravity’s Rainbow, Against the Day, or The Crying of Lot 49 will find especially eye-popping.

If anything, Inherent Vice is even more unusual for Paul Thomas Anderson. The man behind weighty, emotional epics There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, and Boogie Nights, comedy isn’t wholly foreign to Anderson (Boogie Nights especially has some hilarious moments), but it is definitely unusual. His one comedy before Inherent Vice (which is definitely a comedy) was 2002’s Punch Drunk Love, a perfect gem of a film improbably starring Adam Sandler as the rage-filled, downtrodden owner of a plumbing supplies company. Like Inherent Vice, it’s a comedy in the Shakespearian sense: its comediness comes from ridiculous turns of events and happy endings rather than laugh-a-minute antics.

For both Anderson and Pynchon, Inherent Vice is a decidedly a lesser entry in their canons. The book is almost comically commercial and sex-obsessed, with whole pages running by in rapid (but comprehensible) dialogue. The movie is especially bewildering, however. Anderson seems to working homage on several levels: the film is shot in often overexposed 35 mm film, which gives it the grainy, washed-out look of much of 1970s film and television (that it is largely shot in alternating close-ups heightens this feeling).

The film certainly has its moments. A sequence near the beginning where Phoenix walks under the fluttering plastic flags in the parking lot of a massage parlor before being knocked on the head and waking up before a phanlax of LAPD squad cars has a sort of bleak exurban glamour. Many of Phoenix’s exchanges are hilarious, as he slurs and giggles his way through a deepening mystery. The scenes in Short’s office, a dental practice and international drug smuggling ring, have a welcome manic intensity—Short runs out of frame while pulling his pants off at one point. At another, Short and Phoenix make a comic dogpile on a mound of pharmaceutical-grade heroin.

The dialogue, and its delivery, is the great undoing of the film. Much of it is ripped more or less verbatim from Pynchon’s book, and feels stilted and wooden for much of the film’s 148 minutes, especially in its opening half hour. This is obviously a conscious choice: there is not a sentence or sentiment you can think of that Phoenix couldn’t imbue with genuine, affecting emotion. So, why is he so reigned in here? To emphasize that he’s stoned? As an homage to the flat exchanges of much of classic detective cinema from the ‘40s and ‘50s? Because Pynchon was heavily involved in approving the script, and ended up requiring (or simply inspiring) too much fealty to the written word? God only knows. You’d need a stoned private detective to sort it out.

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