There’s a certain feeling that comes over me after a binge of reading Thomas Pynchon’s writing. There’s a certain confused elation; a sense of “what the hell just happened?” I had the same feeling after watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of the reclusive novelist’s Inherent Vice. The seeming impossibility of truly capturing Pynchon’s maximalist writing on film has deterred all attempts until now, but Anderson has succeeded in eliciting the same sense of bemusement. And to capture this feel is more important to an adaptation than mere fidelity to the source.
Now, that’s not to say that everyone will love the film as much as I did. Pynchon’s style is usually an acquired taste, and even though Anderson’s film doesn’t give the full firehose force you get directly from the page it’s still not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. That said, it’s probably a lot easier to watch Inherent Vice than to read it, and the adaptation will capture a whole swath of film fans who love the grainy, 1970 Los Angeles private eye noir angle.
Like many other Los Angeles noir films, this one centers on some sort of conspiracy. There’s just something about the city that seems to point writers towards corruption where other cities seem to conjure only vice. But Pynchon, as usual, is working one level up; this is a metanoir.
So we get the detective, Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, occupying a very different past L.A. than in Her‘s future), but he’s as big a stoner as anyone in what remains of the hippie counterculture. And we get his surfer-girl ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who brings him the case of her rich land developer boyfriend Michael Z. “Mickey” Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), whose wife, she believes, is plotting against him, and who soon goes missing.
Mickey seems to be the absent center around which the whole story turns. Doc’s least-favorite LAPD homicide detective — and aspiring actor — Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) shows up in television ads hawking Mickey’s latest development. Another client (Michael K. Williams) mentions his whole neighborhood was missing the last time he got out of jail, just where Mickey’s new development is.
And then there’s the Golden Fang, which is either a schooner — as suggested by Doc’s marine-lawyer friend Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro) — or a tax dodge for a bunch of dentists — including Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short) — or a massive heroin importer — according to a helpful “masseuse” (Hong Chau). Doc also hears about the Golden Fang from session saxophonist Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), whose wife Hope (Jena Malone) hires Doc to prove her husband isn’t really dead. Hope, incidentally, heard about Doc from an acquaintance of Coy’s: Shasta Fay herself. And of course, the Golden Fang comes with its own pointers back to Mickey.
And this is all without even mentioning everything from the Manson Family to the Aryan Brotherhood to a mysterious private psychiatric hospital called the Chryskylodon Institute.
This huge web of connections should lead Doc — and us along with him — to some key clue that uncovers some massive and nefarious overarching conspiracy. It’s what we’ve been trained since even before the real 1970 to expect from this sort of story. But search as we might, the pieces never quite seem to fit together into any such pleasing pattern. Maybe it’s the L.A. fog; maybe it’s the massive clouds of Doc’s pot smoke; maybe there’s just no there there after all. Conspiracy theories provide a comforting narrative that someone is in charge, at least, even if they’re not working towards the ends we’d prefer. But more often than not they tend to disperse as we come back to our senses.
Anderson plays up this angle in his style. The film consists mostly of close-ups, with almost no wide, establishing shots to get our bearings. We’re always a little disoriented, just like Doc. We get lots of details — indeed, Anderson’s cameras are always slowly pushing in, as we try to lean forward to get a closer look. But the closer you look the less you see, and we never get a big picture to put all of these details in perspective.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.