The Vague Virtue of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Inherent Vice’

It was an un-filmable novel. Naturally, PTA filmed it.

The best way to talk about Inherent Vice is to talk about what it isn’t. Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s unadaptable book isn’t, as its trailer suggests, a wacky, slapstick romp. It doesn’t mark a return to the keyed-up period farce of PTA’s Boogie Nights, however tempting the flared pants and sideburns make the comparison. It isn’t a noir parody or a nostalgic throwback. It isn’t, as some sharp-tongued critics have taken to calling it, “incoherent.” It boasts more than its share of grass — this is fin de siecle sixties California — but it isn’t Cheech and Chong.

So what does that leave? Well, it leaves the book, for one thing: Pynchon’s densely plotted detective story and “lively yarn” about (among other things) the demise of American counterculture. Pynchon looms over modern literature, but nobody has ever tried to make a movie out of one of his books before — for good reason. His most famous novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, is a 770-page postmodern epic with a plot I couldn’t summarize if I tried, and the bulk of his corpus isn’t any easier. His prose is always dense, which makes his work read like James Joyce reinterpretting The Simpsons. It’s equal parts exhilarating and intimidating.

Inherent Vice is Pynchon’s most straightforward book, which isn’t saying much. It tells the story of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a hapless, bleary-eyed private investigator set up in the fictional surf town of Gordita Beach, a hamlet off the Pacific Coast Highway. He’s hired to help an ex by the name of Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who finds herself in deep with some crooks who plan to ship her lover, the wealthy real estate mogul Mickey Wolffman (Eric Roberts), off to the nuthouse, unless someone interferes on his behalf. Orchestrating this and other machinations is a nefarious cabal of coke-dealing dentists known as the Golden Fang, whose plans also involve Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) a double agent smuggled into a coterie of hippies as a spy whose abandoned wife, Hope (Jena Malone), commissions Doc to retrieve him. There’s also a crew-cut cop, who goes by Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), a maritime lawyer, Doc’s reliable counsel Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro), and a sort of spirit guide, Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), who doubles as narrator. 

Straightforward may not be the word for it. Still, this is about as sensible as a Pynchon plot gets, and PTA, excising only the most extraneous bits, is as faithful to the architecture of the story as a studio could allow him to be. Story aside, the book has a lot of things that seem to lend themselves well to the silver screen: sight gags, car chases, shoot outs, drug trips. This is the good stuff. And, naturally, when the book came out, in 2009, a lot of people compared its tale of a dope-smoking hippie PI embroiled in a far-out mystery to the dreamy noir-riffing of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye — or, better still, to the Chandler-light lunacy of The Big Lebowski. You could see how that might make a good movie. It already did.

And it has again. But what’s surprising about Inherent Vice the film is that it’s great for almost precisely the opposite reasons that you’d expect given the source material. Instead of seizing upon the book’s veneer of breezy comedy, PTA draws out the melancholy lurking just beneath the surface, finding in Pynchon’s portrait of the hippie in decline a bleak vision of freedom curdling into complacency. In other words, he’s turned this into a comedy whose laughs get caught in your throat.

At first it seems like he’s playing against the material: A simple gag — as when, say, Doc walks toward a police station and is shouldered by a cop onto the ground — is slowed down and scored with more brooding, ethereal music. The gag doesn’t seem funny anymore. But what you come to realize is that this sadness, this darker thing, was in the book all along. PTA just takes that and harnesses it.

It’s obvious that something is off from the film’s opening minutes. It begins, as the book does, with a typical film noir encounter: Shasta, the femme fatale ex, surprises Doc, the shoeless gumshoe, at his beachside home, asking for help in desperation. But what reads like snappy, Philip Marlowe-style dialogue on the page — “Somebody’s keepin’ a close eye?” “Just spent an hour on surface streets trying to make it look good.” — seems more mournful here, even despairing. The tone feels off. Then Shasta is out and Doc is left in the street watching her car drive away. PTA cues up a deep cut by Krautrock band Can and, as the credits roll, Doc wanders off down the street, aimlessly, as the camera keeps track. This is what the movie does best: A hazy, meandering digression, seemingly without direction but totally controlled, the whole thing in a spirit of weary, paranoid contemplation. It’s as if Doc knows the sixties are about to implode around him.

Here’s a key passage from the novel and film alike: “Was it possible, that at every gathering — concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back east, wherever — those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?” In both Doc answers the narration aloud, and it might as well be the thesis statement: “Gee, I dunno.” Greed and fear are still around. The sentiment still applies.

Photos by Warner Bros. Pictures