After the film festival premiere of Inherent Vice, one reviewer stated that the film was formatted as a stoner comedy and he couldn’t understand what was happening.
“A stoner comedy with an incomprehensible plot?” I remember thinking. “That sounds like an adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel to me.”
I quite like Thomas Pynchon. I’ve read several of his books (including Inherent Vice) but I would be unable to summarize any of them if you put a gun to my head. Still, there is something about each of his works that is incredibly addictive. I always feel like the joke is on me when I read his works.
All of them are marked by a nerdy obsession with the popular culture of the time they are set in. It doesn’t matter how “high” or “low” the culture in question is. Pynchon is equally likely to reference an exhibit at MOMA and The Chevy Chase Show. I’m convinced that Gravity’s Rainbow is actually an adventure serial from the 1930s that a London audience is watching as an escape from the actual looming war – which makes it ironic when the theater they are watching it in is bombed. Against the Day is a giant tome that parodies every style of 19th century literature Pynchon could think of. His most recent novel, Bleeding Edge, describes a street corner in New York as being “the only street corner where Law & Order hasn’t filmed.”
Bleeding Edge has one of my favorite quotes in it as well: “The past, hey no shit, it’s an open invitation to wine abuse.” Did I mention he won a MacArthur Genius Grant?
That’s just the details. All of his works are marked by paranoid characters who believe, despite all rational evidence, that they are the centers of massive controversies and that secret societies are targeting them. This, despite the fact that the characters are usually either completely normal or far too crazy to have any real impact on the world. The fact the plots are so incomprehensible is part of the point. It’s what the characters build up in their minds to explain circumstances they don’t understand and never will.
Before Inherent Vice, the only real Thomas Pynchon adaptation on the screen was the legendary cult classic The Big Lebowski. That film has the same sort of complex plot, a fascination with an American subculture (bowling), a character who has no chance of understanding what’s happening, characters who are introduced and quickly forgotten, and an ending where nothing is really resolved.
But now we have an official adaptation of a Pynchon novel – the first one in a writing career that has lasted fifty years. But the most important thing about Inherent Vice is that it’s a great film on its own. Had I not been familiar with Pynchon, I would have assumed he was some pulp author that director Paul Thomas Anderson had found and decided to use to deconstruct noir cliches. Anderson was, maybe, the only person that could have made this film.
Once again, I would be unable to summarize what happens in this film in the same way I would be unable to summarize what happens in the novel. It has something to do with a private eye named Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) investigating the disappearance of a huge real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts, in case you care). Doc takes the case because Mickey stole his girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) away. He finds that it’s somehow connected to a massive smuggling ring, the Golden Fang, which may be run by California dentists or may be run by a former client of his. Nevertheless, Doc is determined to get to the bottom of it, no matter who much resistance he encounters from LAPD Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who wishes he were an actor and hates the fact that he is a cop stereotype.
I haven’t even explained all the characters involved and haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of everything that happens. That’s part of the point. It’s deliberately incomprehensible so audiences can see just how silly Doc’s case is.
Joaquin Phoenix is perfect as Doc. One of the marvels of Pynchon’s characters is the fact that they don’t drive any action. They simply exist and are forced to watch bad things happen to them. Doc never has a moment where he is in control. Phoenix plays Doc as someone who is content to only exist. He often mumbles the dialogue and has no important quotes. When he answers the phone to receive the next important plot point, he can hardly even say “hello.” That doesn’t stop Phoenix from pretending like Doc’s important. He tries to take control of every question and answer session he’s in, even when he’s stoned out of his mind. Even his attempts of blending in are doomed to failure. One scene late in the film has a character requesting the typical hippie Doc dress in a jacket and tie. So, he wears dream catcher around his neck to comply with the request. Everything about Doc is completely wrong but also completely correct for what the film needs to accomplish.
And what impressed me most is how Anderson only uses Pynchon as a starting point to deliver his own message. The narration seems to be a word for word recitation of the novel (I’d have to double check) but the best moments in Inherent Vice are moments that could never exist in a novel. For me, the funniest moment involved Bigfoot eating a frozen banana while Doc looks on. It’s a static shot that depends entirely on Doc’s reaction to Bigfoot and he notices the obvious phallic imagery of the ultraconservative sticking the banana deep in his mouth.
But Katherine Waterston impressed me the most. There’s a monologue late in the film where she shows up at Doc’s house and proceeds to sexually taunt him while swearing that they will never get back together. It’s a great scene, as Waterston’s voice gets deeper and she crawls on Doc. The camera barely moves, emphasizing the voyeuristic nature of what we are doing. And, as with the example above, it would have been impossible to accomplish in a book.
I’m glad that Anderson demonstrated what an adaptation can do for the material. He made it his own. The film is profoundly funny, with the sort of visual flair and meditative tone that is a trademark of all Anderson films. And, like Pynchon, Anderson used the film as an opportunity to eviscerate the cop and robber shows that were popular at the time. There is no resolution to anything in Doc’s story. The bad guys escape, there is no confession, and Doc is such a terrible action hero that when he does manage to fire a shot, he has to call out and ask whether or not he hit anyone.
These are great moments, but you have to think about them after the fact to realize the impact they have. Anderson isn’t someone who congratulates himself on film. He barely regards these moments at all. Like The Master, he wants us to come to our own conclusion.
Inherent Vice demonstrates why Paul Thomas Anderson is considered one of the finest American filmmakers. He’s not afraid to tackle any material, even if it’s a novel by one of the most celebrated American authors. Inherent Vice also demonstrates what an adaptation of a novel should be. Anderson takes Pynchon’s work but doesn’t commit himself to it. Instead, he wants to accomplish the same goals the author had in a different medium. That’s the approach everyone should take when turning a favorite novel into a film.