Part of me is still in disbelief that there is a Thomas Pynchon adaptation, let alone one as faithful as Paul Thomas Anderson’s version of Inherent Vice. As a fan of both postmodern and pop literature, I am always glad when the two intersect, and Inherent Vice is a great example. The most accessible of Pynchon’s novels to date, it also dovetails perfectly with Anderson’s exploration of Southern California history.
Set in 1970, Inherent Vice follows the detective and stoner Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he attempts to investigate the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend’s (Katherine Waterston) married boyfriend. Along the way, Doc must navigate the criminal justice system, including the straight-edge Det. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), his district attorney girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon), cults, and conspiracies to unravel the mystery. Along the way, Doc encounters double agents (Owen Wilson), recovering drug addicts (Jena Malone), maritime lawyers (Benicio del Toro), dentists (Martin Short) and many others.
The structure of the film is unusual in that it oscillates between deliberate obfuscation derived from Doc’s chemical dependencies and paranoia, and moments of clarity, which punctuate the film with the understanding that only a stoner hippie could possibly see all the connections and absurdity that underlines the era. Playing out against the backdrop of the Manson trials and the encroachment of “flatland” on the wild 60s, Inherent Vice is densely packed with references and meanings impossible to entirely digest on an initial viewing. Rather, the experience watching the film evokes Doc’s state of mind. While the book may be the most accessible of Pynchon’s work, the cinematic experience created by this faithful adaptation makes it one of Anderson’s most inaccessible.
Two fertile pathways exist in the film that will aid firstime viewers in navigating this dense film. The first is Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), a minor character in the novel that Anderson elevates to occasional third person omniscient narrator. Sortilège provides insight into Doc’s mind as well as the surrounding plot, creating a fluid fourth wall between the film and the audience. Anderson uses much of Pynchon’s prose for this narration. Winding and wry, Newsom is uniquely capable of delivering these words, often in short quick bursts which end up making sentences. The other is the yin and yang pair of Doc and Bjornsen. The two characters intersect at various points in the film, and while Bjornsen never quite becomes an antagonist in the story, he is Doc’s straight-laced foil, an equal and opposite force of the straight world butting up against Doc’s zigzag existence.
It would be neglectful not to mention that Inherent Vice is also a comedy. And a funny one too. Phoenix brings his sputtering, muttering confusion to Doc, and it works well when he is desperately trying to grasp onto reality while it slips through his fingers just the same. While taking notes, Doc will be given the name of a Hispanic person and just write “Spanish name,” or he will be pulled in for questioning by the FBI, ask all the questions, and leave them confused and annoyed. Josh Brolin, however, gets most of the funniest moments, as his flat top crowned Bjornsen reveals a flexible morality, a hunger for pancakes, and a surprising amount of depth to his character, but mostly played for laughs.
A dense but rewarding film, Inherent Vice is also wildly entertaining, but requires the viewer slip into a sort of mental fugue state, letting the film’s transportative power take over. Having been born over a decade later, I have no feel for if this time period ever truly existed, but like all of Anderson’s sweeping epics (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, The Master), there is a definite truth about America presented in the unreality of the film.
Inherent Vice opens in Philly theaters today.