Inherent Vice | Paul Thomas Anderson | USA | 2014 | 148 minutes
Tonight the Cinesthesia series kicks off its 2017 lineup with Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. In his program notes, Jason Fuhrman discusses Anderson’s adaptation methodology and the literary and cinematic precedents for the shaggy-dog L.A. detective tale.
Under the paving-stones, the beach!
—Graffito, Paris, May 1968
Faithfully adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is a psychedelic surf noir comedy set in 1970 against the backdrop of sunny Southern California, with a diverse cast of characters that includes paranoid burnouts, white-supremacist bikers, Black Panther ex-cons, hippies, former heroin addicts, a murderous loan shark, the FBI, corrupt LAPD detectives, an undercover saxophonist, a group of Beverly Hills dentists, and a mysterious entity called The Golden Fang.
At the center of the film is pothead private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who spends most of his time attempting to unravel an increasingly labyrinthine plot, while smoking copious amounts of marijuana. Doc’s free-spirited ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) appears at his door with a story about her shady billionaire land-developer boyfriend and his wife and her boyfriend, which sends Doc down assorted narrative byways and bottomless rabbit holes.
Venturing where no previous filmmaker has dared, Anderson successfully brings cinematic life to a work by Pynchon for the first time in his 50 years of output. Pynchon, the notoriously cerebral, reclusive author considered a paradigmatic postmodernist, is a perfect match for Anderson, the rare Hollywood auteur who can produce enigmatic films of epic lengths within the studio system.
“I am a gigantic Pynchon fan,” Anderson says, “and I’d long had this dance in my mind where I’d be thinking about doing [his previous, vastly complex novels] Vineland or Mason & Dixon. But those would have been impossible tasks.” Pynchon’s intricate, maze-like narratives are often difficult to follow. His novels contain dozens of characters, wordy, indirect language, loose ends, and perhaps most obviously problematic for studios with a deadline, incredible attention to detail. However, when Inherent Vice was issued in 2009, Anderson was drawn to it, and wrote the film concurrently with his script for The Master (2012). One of the author’s more accessible works, The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani called it “Pynchon Lite”.
To come to grips with the project, Anderson adapted the entire 384-page novel sentence by sentence. “I basically just transcribed it so I could look at it like it was a script,” he reveals. Anderson compressed Pynchon’s dense prose with surgical precision, discarding certain subplots, characters and locales while retaining the book’s sociopolitical undercurrent, apocalyptic touches, and uproariously funny details. He tried to cram as many jokes onto the screen as Pynchon squeezed onto the page. Indeed, anyone who prizes the novel for its treasure-trove of jokes will be gratified by how many of them survive in the film.
Anderson wrote his first draft without a narrator, and then added a female voiceover by enlarging the part of Doc’s associate, Sortilège (Joanna Newsome), an astrologer who hangs out at the beach. He also wrote an outrageous new ending for the film that deviates significantly from the novel. Despite such creative liberties, Anderson remains absolutely loyal to Pynchon’s worldview throughout the entire film. “In the editing room, all the time, I was just trying to be a surrogate to his compassion and his concern for the American fate,” he states. “Has America really lived up to its potential? Let’s keep hoping.”
Pynchon’s book translates to the screen with a meandering narrative that is as elusive as it is delightfully incoherent. Of course, that is precisely the appeal of Pynchon’s freewheeling literary style, which Anderson captures so well. “My best experiences reading his books have been when I allow them to wash over me,” he explains. “When you don’t expect anything, don’t know anything… just surrender and ride along the waves he creates.” Those unfamiliar with the novel may find the details particularly difficult to follow, but that is beside the point. Provocative, hilarious, atmospheric and consistently bizarre, Inherent Vice envelops us like a thick fog rather than unrolling in procedural fashion.
Following in a grand cinematic tradition of discursive storytelling, Inherent Vice joins the ranks of Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski (1998), Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). All three films are shaggy-dog tales of baffled P.I.s in which the implausible plot barely adds up, but it doesn’t really matter, anyway. (It is worth noting that the Coen brothers’ film is loosely inspired by the works of Raymond Chandler, while the latter two are based on novels by him.)
Anderson’s second and third features, Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), invited comparisons to the works of Robert Altman, but Inherent Vice is perhaps his most Altmanesque film yet. It is especially indebted to The Long Goodbye, which stars Elliot Gould as the offbeat, chain-smoking private investigator Phillip Marlowe. While on the trail of the murderer of his best friend’s wife, he encounters a washed-up alcoholic writer, a quack doctor, and a sadistic gangster, each of whom carries a piece of the puzzle. Marlowe, moreover, is hired by a beautiful woman to find her vanished man, on the verge of the Pacific, and his search, like Doc’s, involves poking around a sanatorium for the mentally vexed.
Anderson describes Inherent Vice as being “like a Cheech and Chong movie,” but a benumbed melancholy lurks beneath its comedic surface. He is adamant that there is meaning amid the reefer madness: “You’ve got to dig down to find that there’s anything, because there’s so many good jokes.” In a roundabout way, the film engages with broader ideas than the odd progression of events at its center. Inherent Vice hints at a complicated thesis about its particular moment in American history. In his gonzo epic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson retrospectively referred to the Summer of Love in 1967 as the point where the great wave of the counterculture “broke and finally rolled back.”
Yet Inherent Vice remains a thoroughly pleasurable cinematic experience, riding along on the radiant 35mm photography of Robert Elswit, a wistful, evocative score by Jonny Greenwood, and the nuanced performances of a humorously eccentric ensemble cast. Anderson’s delirious, washed-out portrait of 1970s L.A. is filmmaking of the highest order. Simultaneously crude and urbane, Inherent Vice blends the lighthearted silliness of a lowbrow stoner comedy with the rarefied atmosphere of a serious art-house film. It is a testament to the director’s mastery that he can seamlessly weave so many different moods, textures and ideas into such a rich tapestry, while preserving the essence of his source material.
“The only thing better than reading Pynchon is rereading Pynchon,” Anderson insists. “Like, how did I possibly miss that line the first time round?” As the film is a remarkably faithful adaptation brimming with gags, gimmicks, puns and references, there is so much to soak up that it demands multiple viewings. Indeed, the only thing better than watching Inherent Vice is re-watching Inherent Vice.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom.