There are unfilmable novels and then there is Thomas Pynchon, the premiere post-modern novelist responsible for legendary tomes like Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon. He is known for producing dense, complex novels that explore themes such as racism, philosophy, science and technology while fusing theological and literary ideas with popular culture references to comic books, films, urban myths and conspiracy theories. Satire and paranoia are common currencies that he uses in his novels. And that’s only scratching the surface.
The 1960s were an important decade for Pynchon. It was at this time that his novels V. and The Crying of Lot 49 were published and the bulk of Gravity’s Rainbow was written. He would revisit the ‘60s again from the perspective of the 1980s with Vineland and, most recently, with Inherent Vice, which was published in 2009. The latter novel has been considered his most accessible work since Lot 49 and has been adapted into a film by Paul Thomas Anderson, the American auteur responsible for such memorable efforts as Boogie Nights (1997), There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012) among others.
Possibly informed by Pynchon’s stint in Manhattan Beach, California during the mid-‘60s, Inherent Vice is part stoner comedy/mystery and part lament for an era that was all but gone by 1970 when the story takes place. If the ‘60s was about having your head in the clouds then the ‘70s was about having your feet on the ground. Like its source material, the film plays fast and loose with notions of plot and story, riffing on elements of a Raymond Chandler-esque mystery through a counterculture filter.
Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private investigator of the rumpled variety. One night, he’s visited by an ex-girlfriend by the name of Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) whose latest boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a big-time real estate developer, and his wife are involved in some kind of shady scheme. Doc soon finds himself framed for murder, Shasta disappears (as does Mickey) and he runs afoul of hardass Los Angeles police detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). During the course of his investigation, Doc finds himself immersed in the bizarro social strata of California culture, including a drug-addicted surf musician (Owen Wilson), a member of the Black Panthers (Michael K. Williams), a cokehead dentist (Martin Short), and a secret cartel known as the Golden Fang.
Inherent Vice is the second collaboration between Anderson and actor Joaquin Phoenix and the former may have found his cinematic alter ego. Working together brings out the best in both of them with the actor delivering another excellent performance. He portrays Doc as a peaceful hippie P.I. content to coast through life surrounded by a cloud of pot smoke, but is thrust into a strange world when an ex-lover comes back into his life. He acts as our guide on this journey and the key to navigating the sometimes murky narrative waters is to never lose focus of the primary mystery: the disappearance of Shasta. Doc represents the peace-loving idealism of the ‘60s and who is confronted by all kinds of outlandish people that represent the aggressive excessiveness of the ‘70s.
Anderson populates Inherent Vice with a stellar cast of supporting actors that includes Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, and Martin Short, all of whom bring this collection of oddball characters vividly to life. Some may find the cavalcade of recognizable movie stars distracting but, on the contrary, they act as important signposts along the way to help us keep track of the numerous characters Doc encounters during his investigation.
Josh Brolin gets the most screen-time of the supporting cast as Bigfoot Bjornsen, a throwback to cops of the early ‘60s, complete with crew cut and deep loathing of hippies like Doc. Initially, Bigfoot starts off as Doc’s primary nemesis, but over the course of the film he reveals a frustration with his lot in life, displaying a grudging mutual respect. Brolin certainly has the imposing frame to play Bigfoot and wisely plays the role straight, which makes several of his scenes that much funnier because the uptight character is a product of a bygone era that clashes with the more easygoing Doc as much as the excessive culture of the ‘70s.
The trailers for Inherent Vice are misleading in the sense that they sell the film as some kind of madcap comedy and while there are some out-and-out funny scenes, like Martin Short’s cocaine-addicted dentist, there is a melancholic tone that permeates most of the film expanding on “The High Water Mark” speech Raoul Duke gives late in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) as he laments the death of ‘60s idealism. Inherent Vice even ends on a surprisingly emotional moment that is quite affecting. Instead of going for quick, comedic beats, Anderson applies the aesthetic he used in There Will Be Blood and The Master by breaking the film down into lengthy, dialogue-heavy scenes between Doc and one of the many people involved either directly or tangentially to Shasta’s disappearance, which may test the patience of some expecting the stylish zaniness of something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. While Terry Gilliam’s film reflected Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo sensibilities, so too does Inherent Vice reflect Pynchon’s peculiar sensibilities. Like the book, Anderson takes his time and lets you sink into Pynchon’s world, which is certainly not an experience for everyone.
Several reviews have compared Inherent Vice to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), but they are only similar on a very superficial level. Anderson’s film is its own thing – a shaggy dog journey through a corner of Pynchon’s universe that the filmmaker has brought faithfully and lovingly to life. Much like Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (2012), Inherent Vice is made by and for fans of Pynchon’s novel, which will leave the uninitiated out in the cold, struggling to follow a film that may seem like an incoherent mess, but is actually quite faithful to its source material with huge chunks of the author’s prose coming out of the characters’ mouths. You shouldn’t have to see a film more than once to “get it,” but there are some that reveal themselves in more detail and whose nuances are appreciated upon repeated viewings. This is such a film. As Pynchon himself once famously said in response to the complexity of his novel V., “Why should things be easy to understand?” The fact that one of Pynchon’s novels has been adapted into a film is quite a significant accomplishment. That it successfully translates his worldview is even more noteworthy.