★ ★ ★ ½
Adapting Thomas Pynchon for the big screen sounds like a fool’s errand. How could anyone capture the distinctive stream-of-consciousness, tangents-within-tangents style of his prose? Inherent Vice, the author’s take on the tradition of L.A. private-detective yarns, sure seems like the best book to try with, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie certainly manages to stay faithful to Pynchon’s spirit and style as well as anyone could imagine.
Set in 1970, the purposefully intricate plot kicks off when perpetually stoned private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) gets a visit from ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) at his beachside California home. She’s been shacking up with wealthy land developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), and she’s concerned that he’s gone missing; complicating matters greatly is the fact that Mickey’s wife and her lover previously approached Shasta about doing away with him so the three of them could split the insurance money. Shasta asks Doc to look into it for her, and because she still has a firm grip on his heart and his loins, he agrees.
This leads to a wild trip into the shadiest places in L.A., populated by a motley crew of stoner freaks, willful weirdoes, and corrupt power brokers—the cast of characters include a onetime surf-music saxophonist turned underground informant named Coy (Owen Wilson), Doc’s lawyer Sauncho (Benicio Del Toro), hedonistic dentist Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), and erotic-massage specialist Jade (Hong Chau). As Doc digs deeper, he’s both helped and challenged by Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a straight-edge, by-the-book policeman who is the polar opposite of Doc’s shambling-stoner hero—there’s no doubt Bigfoot voted for Nixon in ’68.
Paul Thomas Anderson has never been shy about the influence Robert Altman’s movies have had on his work. In fact, PTA was the on-set co-director for the iconoclast’s last picture, A Prairie Home Companion (which was required for legal reasons in case Altman’s health took a turn for the worse). As a result, it seems reasonable to assume that Anderson’s take on this particular Pynchon story would owe a great debt to Altman’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s genre-defining private-eye novel, The Long Goodbye. In reality, Inherent Vice doesn’t feel anything like Altman’s take on Chandler. Anderson understands that mimicking Altman would keep his film from standing on its own, and the bravest aspect of this movie is its refusal to draw comparisons to that earlier work, or the other stoner-private-eye favorite that should seemingly loom large over this picture, the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski.
Anderson’s aim here is to translate Pynchon’s voice to the screen, not better or ape his cinematic predecessors. Nor is he interested in burnishing his own reputation: This is his least showy movie since his debut, Hard Eight. In order to achieve that goal, he and his longtime DP Robert Elswit create a hazy, low-key vibe that, while certainly distinctive—no other film has exactly this tone—doesn’t really grip the audience. That feeling is underscored by the muddy sound design: It’s sometimes hard to understand the characters, especially Phoenix when he reverts to full-on mumbling. All this adds to the film’s aesthetic, but anyone who wants to involve themselves in the remarkably complicated mystery will become frustrated, possibly to the point of distraction.
Those decisions are all obviously intentional. Anderson is less interested in the mystery, though rest assured it does make sense, than he is capturing the bittersweet center of Pynchon’s book—an evocation of the moment when it seemed like truth and beauty could have won the day, but were destroyed by a power structure built on paranoia, selfishness, and the fact that too many people just can’t handle their high.
Inherent Vice is a comedy, but with a couple of exceptions, it isn’t a film that triggers laughter. Its purposeful oddness sets up a reality in which anything seems possible, and in a setting like that, nothing seems unusual. The heart of comedy is surprise, and since Anderson cues us to expect the unexpected very early on, we don’t physically laugh during the movie so much as we admire the unique world he’s created.
Anderson has made a head film, both in the sense that Inherent Vice gives viewers the cinematic equivalent of a contact high, and in the sense that it’s easier to admire than to love. It’s a movie constructed to build a cult audience who will want to return to it over and over again. That kind of commitment will be rewarded, just as returning to Pynchon’s books helps reveal new connections and meanings.