Warning: viewers of Paul Thomas Anderson’s exacting, faithful, remarkably personalized, and occasionally unbalanced adaptation of Inherent Vice could experience an array of side effects. This rapid-fire yet meditatively paced channeling of Thomas Pynchon’s psychedelic private-eye novel may induce symptoms including but not limited to: acid-wash flashbacks, secondary potheadiness, disconsolate erections, feverish irony, confounded expectations, involuntary double-takes, and euphoric disorientation. (Extreme hairstyles on display may also trigger PTSD episodes.) Consult your local astrologer if symptoms persist…
It’s 1970 at Gordita Beach, a fictional SoCal beach town, space-case magnet, and microcosmic petri dish. A tone of tamped-down anxiety and ambient remorse pervades the inspection of faces belonging to ash- and beer-splattered living rooms, bedrooms, and interrogation rooms. Here the collapse of the counterculture, the rise of the U.S. government–sponsored dope wars, the fallout from the ongoing downward-spiraling Vietnam fiasco, and the whole crooked real-estate/crime-syndicate/rehab- center/Dialing for Dollars economics of the state (or state of mind) swirl together in a richly toxic, woozily comic tapestry.
Among the key plot elements: one possibly kidnapped millionaire, one good-bad paramour, a conniving wife plus her tanned boy toy, a looming Jack Webb–footed cop, a surf-musician/police-informant/agent-provocateur who is pretending to be dead, a maritime lawyer, a nefarious drug cartel called the Golden Fang that’s also the name of a boat, a spectacular hunk of unregulated L.A. architecture, and a tax shelter for dentists (who may also be drug lords, Nixon henchmen, or worse). Not to mention a certain weed-whacked investigator…
Doc Sportello, PI (Joaquin Phoenix, sporting Buffalo Springfield muttonchops and male Medusa locks, a wondrous study in slapstick dread crossed with self-medicated grief), is roused from his personal reveries by the sudden reappearance of Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Naturally, she’s his winsome, tough-cookie ex-girlfriend and the source of his voluptuous sense of loss. Shasta Fay needs help in regard to what Doc wincingly refers to as “a gentleman of the straightworld persuasion,” her new squeeze and high-rolling provider. Waterston’s Cheshire cat smile is so heartbreakingly tender yet perilously ambivalent you could dive into it like a swimming pool at sunset, even if it means a fall straight onto concrete. And on the soundtrack, a sweet, knowing narratrix intimates there’s trouble brewing on their event horizon.
In Pynchon’s book, the incipient New Age seer-astrologer Sortilège is a minor character tucked away in the underbrush. Anderson, however, subtly elevates her to reframe the entire story. His decision to hand her the crucial voiceover narration—the sacrosanct domain of so many a private dick, that reflexive phallic fount of wisdom, wisecracks, and exposition—may go a long way toward determining how people react to this film. Singer Joanna Newsom gives her a disarming blend of spaciness and shrewdness, the optimization of a laid-back, mystically inclined hippie chick by way of Wings of Desire. She’s someone to watch over our boy Doc, who can definitely use all the guardianship he can get. Thus Sortilège serves as the moral compass of his twisted journey, and ours: the sainted, omniscient cornflake who’s more grounded than all the rest of the schemers, dreamers, runaways, and bent cops hereabouts strung together.
Like the novel, Anderson’s Inherent Vice is a raucously convoluted, intellectually nimble take on the crusty mythology of the private detective as Don Quixote. There’s even Sauncho Smilax (a bracing Benicio Del Toro) to play Panza to Doc’s Private D.Q. (Del Toro doesn’t figure as much in the film, but in the book his resemblance to another sidekick he played in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is quite pronounced). Sitting precariously astride what Robin Williams used to refer to as “the Manson-Nixon Line,” Doc is perched to roll another number, kick back, and watch the whole frigging enchilada unravel. Quixotic fella that he is, though, he can’t resist getting involved clear up to his bloodshot eyeballs. Phoenix’s sharpened profile suggests a dazed hawk on a shaky tree branch, but Doc’s hardly in the catbird seat: he’s the classic patsy being fitted for a customized canary-in-a-coal-mine harness.
Comparisons with The Big Lebowski are well-nigh unavoidable: Pynchon used its canny doper hijinks as a trampoline jumping-off point to play against, react to, and improvise/improve on, carpentry- and philosophy-wise. He also brought in a whole panoply of his other touchstones, ranging from Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books and The Rockford Files to the Firesign Theater and “the shamus of shamuses Johnny Staccato.” Doc sees the Dude’s zonked worldview and raises it by about six degrees of justifiable paranoia. Anderson deals with the resemblances head-on—the routine involving the kidnapped tycoon’s wife is like a hyper-alert variant on the Lebowski method—but, as in that initial languid, multifaceted exchange between Doc and Shasta, Inherent Vice’s emotional stakes are far higher and the snark quotient lower.
Behind the Coen Brothers’ cute curlicues and hip paradiddles, The Big Lebowski was mainly a Larry, Moe, and Curly flick for postgraduate dropouts, with all the existential weight of a cotton-candy bowling ball. The particular accomplishment of Inherent Vice is to restore the freaky-gnomic gum-shoe to his rightful misfit place in the great L.A. chain of being and nothingness stretching from Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye to Robert Benton’s The Late Show and on to Jack Nicholson’s too un-fairly maligned Two Jakes. Sportello may be an easy mark, but inside his ludicrousness there’s a reminder of the old joke about never playing poker with a guy named Doc. Phoenix’s great stoned face has no middle ground between blankness and registering too much. It’s easy to underestimate him, as he’s perpetually either zoning out or freaking out, sometimes in the same sentence (as when a worried mom shows him an alarming baby picture). But Doc always comes through in the end.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s frame of reference equals the breadth of Pynchon’s, even if it veers into different but linked territories. In the movie, riffs always seem to occur in two or three different keys and rhythms at once. Pynchon’s prose is more consciously jazz-informed, his take on traditional hardboiled themes analogous to Ornette Coleman’s quartet covering “Embraceable You.” Still, Anderson’s Inherent Vice ensemble and dual-register direction creates a fascinating emotive-spatial-collective logic all its own: word-picture-sound collages operating inside a streamlined, forward-lunging, insidiously romantic narrative. Surprisingly, the movie’s more weirdly interiorized and not as expansively outgoing as the book would lead you to anticipate: the Inherent Vice of my dreams would have more sense of the jumbled archaeology of L.A. back then, more of the grunge-funk edifices, the leftover potluck from previous generations, the smog and the unexpected torrential rains, the feeling of reality bleeding and strobing like a cheap color TV picture in a thunderstorm. Master of Southern California light and industrial spaces, Anderson’s withdrawn from the landscape this time around, as though he caught a dose of agoraphobia from Doc.
Also, if you haven’t read the novel, the turns of this story can’t be easy to follow. Anderson doesn’t exactly get hung up on keeping score, plotwise, either. The conspiratorial gist is clear enough, but he would prefer to let the characters breathe, letting every actor take his or her best shot. He’s content to lay down the skeletal outline of the Golden Fang backstories and the webs of malfeasance without trying to nail down every puzzle piece in this phantom empire. In lieu of an airtight case, Anderson lays out a mood that’s totally, ardently specific, yet elusive as catching a perfect wave at twilight: it washes over you before you can get a handle on it.
This approach permits Phoenix to burrow so far down into a personality and era that he exudes eau de 1970 the way a socialite might ooze Chanel or a wino would burp up Thunderbird. This way he keeps the viewer—and possibly the director—genuinely off balance, shimmying up against a couple of massage parlor cuties (he’s clobbered by a baseball bat, departing consciousness with a lovely goofball pratfall), sussing out Martin Short’s smarmy Dr. Blatnoyd (letting Short run circles around the infield, the receptionist, and a nice pile of medical-grade cocaine), or playing telephone straight man to Jeannie Berlin’s Aunt Reet, a Catskills gargoyle with killer timing: “Maybe you’re better off with the Nazis.” Nothing beats the voice of experience, which in turn sets up his terrifically incredulous line another 90 minutes into the film: “Is that a swastika on that man’s face?”
Anderson’s ultimate casting coup pairs Phoenix, huffing nitrous oxide from a handy tank, with ex-porn-star/auteur Belladonna, playing the sister of a deceased biker with casual, well-oiled panache. Their conversation has the light-headed, am-I-dreaming-this effect of Gene Hackman’s Young Frankenstein cameo. It’s not a callback to Boogie Nights or anything nearly so obvious. Belladonna’s dropped into the proceedings with all the barbed zest of one of Pynchon’s pop or cartoon tangents that didn’t make Anderson’s final cut: like those Gilligan’s Island disquisitions or Charlie the Tuna fishing expeditions, the onetime star of Fashionistas and director of the Fetish Fanatic series embodies a secret, disordered side of America’s mass culture.
Anderson can be just that wildly esoteric, but at the same time there’s a strong strain of pragmatism in his adaptation and many of the casting choices as well. He’s jettisoned a lot of Pynchon’s enjoyably plush padding (a Vegas side trip and surf music wanderings), focusing on the emotional core of the book—to the point of making it into one very tricky sort of romance instead of a flat-out fatalistic noir. He could have easily done it in full-mental-jacket, sensory-overload terms, but he’s struck a balance between freewheeling melancholia and loopy, broad comedic hooks.
Josh Brolin’s bit sucking a frozen banana in a cop car is certainly bound to stick in a lot of minds. At the other end of the gravitas spectrum, in his minute or two on screen as the voluntarily-or-not sanatorium patient and missing big shot Mickey Wolfmann, Eric Roberts is awesomely dissolute, like he’d OD’d on corruption itself. Brolin’s Bigfoot Bjornsen, ultra-hard-assed cop and moonlighting commercial spokesman/Adam-12 bit player, also has his moments of psychotic pathos. Bigfoot barking orders for pancakes in a Japanese restaurant is both hilarious and curiously touching. At one point early on, he dons shades and an Afro à la Linc of The Mod Squad to pitch a dubious housing development in a TV commercial, promising buyers a view of the lovely Dominguez flood channel. Fittingly enough, I suppose, because Inherent Vice concerns a group of people who are or are about to be, in real estate parlance, “under water.”
In this distressed context, as Doc’s assistant DA girlfriend Penny, Reese Witherspoon amounts to a really coiffed, classy placeholder. But her professionalism and veteran expertise give the audience an easy, painless point of entry into the movie; Owen Wilson’s Coy Harlingen, surf exile, is likewise the purest typecasting, but why quibble with perfection? When the smoke clears and he says to Doc, in admiring disbelief, “You’re a dangerous hombre,” it’s such a satisfyingly old-fashioned yet half-cocked moment only a killjoy could deny it. Anderson even cooks up a wonderfully hokey Last Supper portrait for Coy—beatification by way of the Old Masters of Zap Comix. He throws in some pretty straightforward music cues for good measure: Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past” for Doc and Shasta’s Ouija board flashback, while Jonny Greenwood’s score persistently edges into Bernard Herrmann territory with impressively swoony results.
Inherent Vice, for all its bravado and wit, stands or falls apart on Katherine Waterston’s slender shoulders. On the page, Shasta Fay is your classic femme cipher, believable to the extent of Doc’s need to project his longings onto her. Waterston, working in two slow-burning, aria-like monologues of affectionate calculation and uncertain, highly compartmentalized motives, turns a threadbare archetype into someone painfully real and poetically resonant. Her tour de force seduction of Doc, mostly performed while naked, uncorking a slow drip of role-playing, self-revilement, vulnerability, and desperate control that’s indistinguishable from nihilistic abandon, expresses more about sex as a weapon and a survival strategy than a thousand footnoted treatises on the femme fatale in film noir. It’s everything Anderson couldn’t yet get on film in Boogie Nights (97); like Doc, Anderson and Phoenix are just along for the ride, besotted and overcome. It’s the most despondently sexy scene you can imagine, but its power—Waterston’s power and the human weakness within it—comes from how honestly she conveys the eternal allure of the truly, emphatically fucked-up. Despondency, black humor, and fantasy all converge like these were the last two contestants (or three if you count Anderson) in an erotic demolition derby—winner take cover.
From there, the rest of the movie is mostly a matter of lining up the pins and winding up the mystery with a nice send-off: a touch of violence, another snappy walk on (sign in, Martin Donovan), and a deadpan gem of a dope hand-off to a suburban mom and kids complete with station wagon (the Golden Fang sinks its tooth of crime in everything). There’s a funkily ritualized parting scene with Bigfoot breaking down Doc’s door for old times’ sake, underlining the cop’s unrequited feeling for the decoy/fall guy he set up but who somehow shambled his way into cracking the case and avenging the death of Bigfoot’s murdered partner. Brolin never conveys the character’s aura of affable maliciousness in the book. He doesn’t seem to be a real worst-nightmare physical (and psychological) threat: he is good for a lot of highly entertaining bluster and a touch of pity, but I could never stop feeling a Viggo Mortensen or Brendan Gleeson (an actor who, with the proper drawl, could make a swell middle-aged John Wayne) would have cut a more imposing figure. (At the same time, if the movie’s a hit, Brolin will deserve a lot of credit for throwing audiences a John Goodman comedic lifeline to pull them to safety.)
The Golden Fang, at least in its seagoing iteration, is even brought to bay, in a quick sequence whose throwaway eloquence rings a few pleasing Gatsby bells. Justice is served, roughly speaking, and Doc and Shasta drive off into a stylized artificial sunset, framed in the car like Bogie and Bacall, Bonnie and Clyde, or maybe those crazy mixed-up over-age kids from Detour…
One moral of this tale, Anderson’s newly minted revamp of a warhorse ending notwithstanding (in the novel, Doc motors off alone in the fog) is heard when Sortilège muses invisibly about the enforced decline of the Sixties:
“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?”
“Gee,” answers Doc, as though breaking the fourth dimension and becoming able to hear her mordant narration, “I don’t know.”