Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
by Chad Jewett
There is a famous anecdote about screenwriters William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett wiring Raymond Chandler to figure out an especially tricky plot snarl in his novel The Big Sleep, upon which Chandler himself admitted he had no idea. The noir detective story’s structure was too byzantine even for its own author. I was reminded of this folktale upon learning that Paul Thomas Anderson – currently one of the three or four best film directors alive – had taken on the similarly labyrinthine neo-noir Inherent Vice, the latest novel from post-modern great and over-all mystery man Thomas Pynchon. To say that Inherent Vice – which borrows some stoner laughs from The Big Lebowski, some post-60s mournfulness from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and some pop cultural theory from White Noise – is the most adaptable of Pynchon’s tangled, baggy bibliography isn’t saying much. The hazy mix of laxness and paranoia that marks the world of Doc Sportello – the novel’s hippy private detective hero – seems to be there both to render the doomed feeling of post-Woodstock, peak-Nixon bummer that was the early ‘70s and to underline the ridiculous over-complexity of most crime fiction. You can tell Pynchon (and, in his recreation of the scene, Anderson) are taking the piss out of noir and detective stories when Doc ends a shootout with one villain by shouting “Did I get you?”. But Doc’s loose grip on the weird conspiracies and foggy fear that swirl around him also seems placed there to soothe our own feelings of confusion. In the novel, Doc can barely keep a grip on this stuff (and in the end, just has to shrug a lot of it off), so don’t be too hard on yourself for losing the thread too. This was the book that Anderson had to filter into a visual medium.
Anderson succeeds on the strength of his cast and a careful balance struck between allegiance to the already highly-regarded source material and his own obsessions and stylistic tics, which might be more in line with Pynchon than Anderson realizes. Set in the fictional Gordita Beach (a greater Los Angeles beach town), the film follows Doc Sportello (played with affability and charming befuddlement by the somehow underrated Joaquin Phoenix) as he attempts to track his missing ex, Shasta, while simultaneously trying to help out a surf-rock saxophonist trapped in a web of nightmare intrigue, and get to the bottom of a political-narcotic-organized crime conspiracy referred to as “The Golden Fang” – which is also the name of a boat once owned by a McCarthy victim-turned-ultra-patriotic Hollywood celebrity, and which now supposedly transports illicit objects around the globe with almost mystic speed. Confused? That’s partly the point.
Phoenix leans into the maze-like nature of the story around him, acting as a compelling audience surrogate, whose long pauses give us time to figure it out too. None of it really makes sense, which is part of the fun. Phoenix, who played almost the exact opposite character with his seething, dangerous portrayal of Freddie Quell in Anderson’s The Master, builds something new into Pynchon’s creation by imbuing Doc with an empathy and warmth that has seemingly been deleted from the culture’s memory of the late 60s thanks to movies like Forrest Gump (whose message was apparently “Stop Caring About Stuff”?). Seeing Phoenix’s Doc unable to pry himself away from the desperate Coy Harlingen (the aforementioned doomed surf-rocker, played with sun-baked pathos by the always-welcome Owen Wilson) or spending the movie’s one real moment of relative quiet listening to the story of a Jena Malone’s recovering addict widow is moving. It also underlines one of the movie’s key points, as qualities like empathy, honor, justice, and humanism are all displayed by counter-cultural figures like Doc, even as right-wing quasi-villains like Josh Brolin’s Lieutenant Bigfoot – an overzealous, red-baiting LAPD detective – foist all of America’s problems on liberals, progressives, hippies, and counter-culture in general. That Anderson makes even more explicit the ways in which the snarled nature of conservative politics, government conspiracy, the 1970s-and-1980s narcotic epidemics, and pointless foreign wars were a lot more threatening to “America” as a concept than men and women like Doc is one of the key ways that his film improves upon Pynchon’s novel. It’s easy to root for Doc, and it’s a pleasant surprise to see the film position his blend of empathy and open-mindedness positioned as heroic.
Oddly enough, despite its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, the film doesn’t feel long enough. Ironically, up till now, Anderson has been very willing to take time out for atmosphere and aura. Some of the long scenery shots and silent interludes of The Master and There Will Be Blood are what made those films brilliant. They were brief moments of world-building, strange harmonies that filled out the ambiguous universes in which his movies always seem to play out. Inherent Vice could use more of those moments. Missing are the smaller brushstrokes that Pynchon used to give us a more global sense of Doc’s world – the late-night pizza shops; the quixotic trip to Vegas; the often pointless drives around the familiar-yet-foreign version of Los Angeles that Anderson gets right, but only in a more whittled, serviceable form. Sometimes the movie feels like it’s in a rush to fit characters in (this happens literally all the time with adaptations of beloved books), so that we don’t get much of, say, Eric Roberts’ mysterious Mickey Wolfmann or Michael K. Williams’ Black Panther member Tariq Kahlil. These characters, in their more filled-out iterations in the novel, helped Gordita Beach feel more filled in, more “real” – an important, if ironic, thing for a narrative about unreality. There’s a quick scene where Doc parks his car outside his beach house and pauses in the blue gloom of twilight to look around, suddenly feeling a real threat behind his paranoia. The scene is suddenly interrupted by the asphalt sizzle of two skateboards whizzing by. More moments like that – which wouldn’t add up to more than ten minutes of screen time – would help the movie feel more like the world in Doc’s head, which, thanks to Phoenix’s performance, is a place I’d like to spend more time.
But the movie nevertheless looks amazing – Anderson is in competition only with David Fincher (whose sensibilities are similar though less playful and more grim) as American cinema’s reigning visual stylist. If the film doesn’t find time to break its world in for the viewer, it at least looks time-worn and warmly sepia, washed-out and sun-cooked like an old bathing suit or a well-used pair of sandals. Anderson also gets a lot out of his actors. Phoenix’s mix of child-like wonder and child-like paranoia, his balance of humanism and humor, pilots the film. But there is also the dark versions that Owen Wilson and Martin Short give on their personas; especially Short, who, as a coked-up dentist and predator, reveals a simmering spookiness behind his usual Mad Hatter/Bugs Bunny anarchy. Elsewhere, Maya Rudolph does a lot with a little as Doc’s receptionist and Benicio del Toro nods to the version of this film he made with Johnny Depp and Terry Gilliam in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as Doc’s brilliant-yet-fried attorney. Someday we will see the three-hour-plus version of Inherent Vice, and it will likely be close to perfect. But for now, there’s something to be said for a shaggy-dog detective story that commits to being a bit unruly itself.