Film Reviews

Inherent Vice Paul Thomas Anderson

Rating - 8/10

As Paul Thomas Anderson has proven with his increasingly sprawling productions throughout his career, he is the only director ambitious enough to tackle the zany perplexities and absurdly named population of Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel, albeit the reclusive author's most accessible work since the mid-late 1960s- curiously, near the time frame of Inherent Vice, which is set in a fictitious part of LA known as Gordita Beach in 1970.  Since Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Anderson has worked exclusively with periods removed from the present; at first glance, his adaptation would appear to be a loose companion to his breakthrough, Boogie Nights (1997), the ensemble epic chronicling the porn industry in the late '70s through the '80s in the same geographical area of Southern California.  However, Inherent Vice's closest cinematic cousins are Robert Altman's Long Goodbye (1973) and the Coen Brothers' Big Lebowski (1998) with their comedic existentialism, asymmetrical mysteries, and idiosyncratic casts; most significantly, Joaquin Phoenix is the high wanderer-private eye, Larry "Doc" Sportello, who seems like amalgamated riff on Elliott Gould's rambling Philip Marlowe and Jeff Bridges' unkempt "Dude."  Phoenix hits the right mystified tone, oscillating between paranoid stoner and semi-competent investigator caught in a web of suspicious dealings that always seem over his head (except for that one time he's knocked unconscious in a massage parlor fronting as a brothel).  But it's singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom as Sortilège or "Leej," who truly leads in an omniscient role as the wispy-voiced narrator, perfect for her status as the free-floating mystic "in touch with invisible forces," able to "diagnose and solve all manner of problems, emotional and physical."  Newsom's voice, a proxy of Pynchon's prose word-for-word, consistently guides Doc's marijuana-fueled haze through the clubs, back alleys, offices, and beach-front homes.  Pynchon's writing is often prone to tangential psychedelia, but Anderson instead lets the shifting tone of the scrambled plot itself define the film, electing to remove some of the loonier visuals from the novel, including Doc's Scientology-esque acid trip in chapter seven and a point of view sequence of unbalanced teen Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse)'s hallucinatory night drive through Beverly Hills without headlights in chapter eleven.

Describing the enigmatic plot of Inherent Vice would require flowcharts and a magnifying glass, because it consistently changes direction, both literally and figuratively.  In the course of events, Pynchon and Anderson subvert detective fiction and the noir genre, dismantling their fundamental elements into pieces of conspiracy that often feel connected (augmented by psychotropics, no doubt) but do not lead to squeaky-clean resolution.  Doc's bizarre and spontaneous run-ins with cuckoo characters almost always reveal some connection to Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), hippie femme fatale and Doc's free-wheeling former flame who started him on this wild goose chase.  In the opening scene, she quietly strolls into his apartment asking for help, believing there is at least one conspiracy to murder her current catch, Michael "Mickey" Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), and that Mickey's own wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) is the architect.  While Pynchon seems to detail Shasta as a rather flirty, elusive presence (indicative of the groovy krautrock single from Can, Vitamin C, that cues the neon-lit title and her initial departure from Doc's apartment), composer Jonny Greenwood contrasts this air with an ominous and ghostly melancholic orchestral theme, thus heightening many of the ill vibes Doc gets in the presence of others, including his arch-nemesis, the hippie-hating B-list actor-turned-police detective, Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who seems intent on pinning any imaginable crime on the druggie Doc.  In introducing the crooked cop, Anderson takes a page from Pynchon and adds a little surrealistic, cartoonish touch that perfectly meshes with the author's penchant to pay homage to Looney Tunes; projecting through the television in a cheap beatnik get-up, Bjornsen channels his inner Bugs Bunny: "What's up, Doc?"  Jumping further down the rabbit hole, Doc encounters, among others, shady real estate rivals, neo-Nazi radicals, a pair of FBI wise guys, and an ever-present yet undercover snitch named Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), who's in over his head, much like Doc himself.  While Pynchon leaps out of Los Angeles to a Lynchian subplot in Las Vegas about gambling and land development on the Strip, Anderson anchors the narrative entirely in the cultists of California- Golden Fang Enterprises and the Chryskylodon Rehabilitation Institute, where the dystopian nightmares of Aldous Huxley are teased.

In the lengthy list of psych-pop, doo-wop, and showtunes from the novel, only the Marketts' zippy surfer jam, Here Comes the Ho-Dads, makes it into Anderson's film.  Much of the swingin' '60s music is less prominent than one might expect from a period piece that seems to be born from the mindset of an Endless Summer (1966).  While Anderson is quite successful in distilling the sprawling narrative into a confined landscape and space of a feature film, the music scene is almost entirely absent, only offhandedly referenced by characters passing through.  Doc's most direct connection in the novel is his cousin Scott Oof, Beer band guitarist, but Anderson cuts him out of the film entirely and thus a more resonant psychedelic soundscape.  If there's one ingenious bit to note, though, it's the director's selection of Les Fleurs by Minnie Riperton as Nurse Petunia (Maya Ruldolph)'s theme.  (Ruldolph is the daughter of Ms. Riperton and Anderson's wife).  What is more importantly pervasive, though, is allusion to industry takeover and the spectre of cult-leader Charles Manson, which profoundly brought down the high of an entire generation.  Helter Skelter and the Manson murders are basically a microcosm of the events occurring along Doc's journey; there is suspicion of brainwashing at the Chryskylodon Institute with the perverted Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), a potential murder cover-up in the police force concerning Bigfoot Bjornsen's classified partner, and many other details that permeate the histories of various heroes and villains from point A to B.  The overwhelming confusion of this time is personified by Doc in Phoenix's rendering and Anderson's direction, both capturing Pynchon's spirit and the peculiarly stylized language the writer has invented for his lineup of tripping protagonists.  There may not be a grand and groovy resolution or end of the road for Inherent Vice, but this P.T. Anderson joint concludes with a couple perfectly epitomizing scenes- one blisteringly unhinged and the other ambiguously mellow- that exist independently of Pynchon's own denouement.  Each speaks such truth to the Doc character that they threaten to tear the work itself, both on the page and screen, from its own tragicomic stream-of-consciousness narrative of loose ends into a plaintive character study as the music and lyrics of Any Day Now by Chuck Jackson tug at a personal end more than a cultural demise.