With Inherent Vice, director Paul Thomas Anderson not only adds yet another supremely well-acted ensemble film to a resume that already included films such as Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood, but he also manages to effectively adapt and convey the experience of reading a Thomas Pynchon novel in the medium of film.
Is that an enjoyable experience? If you’re a patient viewer and enjoy outlandish characters with often even more outlandish names, conspiracy theories, paranoia often resulting from copious drug use, plot threads deliberately left without any significant payoff, and other unconventional storytelling techniques, then perhaps you’ll appreciate what Anderson delivers here.
Conversely, if you like your movies a bit more conventional, or just more straightforward, best spend your box office dollars elsewhere, because neither Anderson nor Pynchon are interested in making you feel like you got your money’s worth.
In about the smallest nutshell possible, the plot of Inherent Vice goes something like this. In 1970 Los Angeles, habitual dope smoker and part-time private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) finds his life a whole lot more complicated after he agrees to help his old flame, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, “Boardwalk Empire”), who’s become involved with wealthy real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), his conniving trophy wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), and her paramour, Riggs Warbling (Andrew Simpson). Sloane and Riggs want Shasta to help them get Mickey institutionalized so that they can all enjoy his wealth with Mickey out of the way, but Shasta just wants out. Doc, still carrying a torch for her despite her walking out on him years before, agrees to do what he can.
His efforts soon put him on the trail of one of Mickey’s neo-Nazi biker bodyguards gone missing, which in turn puts him square in the sights of the one LAPD Robbery/Homicide detective that hates Doc the most, the straight-laced and humorless Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornson (Josh Brolin), who enjoys nothing more than violating the civil rights of Doc and any other hippies he comes across. While avoiding Bigfoot’s efforts to implicate him in the murder of the bodyguard, Doc also finds himself on the trail of deceased saxophonist and heroine addict Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), whose wife Hope (Jena Malone) has reason to believe isn’t really dead, and trying to figure out just what the “Golden Fang” is and what they have to do with Mickey, his wife, his bodyguards, and of course, Shasta.
Along the way, Doc will need the help of his more recent girlfriend, Assistant District Attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), his Maritime Law specializing attorney, Sauncho Smilez, Esq. (Benecio Del Toro), and sleazy pedophile dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), who may or may not be the key to unlocking just who or what the Golden Fang really are.
Confused? Good. That’s exactly where Anderson wants you.
There’s a reason this film is the first time a work of Thomas Pynchon’s has been adapted for the screen. His style most often has him classified by contemporary literature scholars and critics as a “postmodernist” writer, which among other things means that his work deconstructs and parodies mainstream language use, established genres and archetypes. Pynchon’s novels are tough reads because every line is rife with puns, plays on words, and social commentary, in addition to being constructed in ways that are anything but conventional.
The challenge of distilling all that is Pynchon’s literary style into a film that does the author justice is thus a daunting one. Anderson, who directs Inherent Vice from his own screenplay adapted from Pynchon’s novel, shows that he’s more than up to the challenge, as the film proves to be just as frustrating an entertainment experience as reading the book. At times it’s engrossing and hilarious thanks to its cast, who all bring their A-games here — Phoenix is spot-on here, and he and Brolin’s hilarious scenes playing off of each other are among the film’s most memorable, while the willowy Katherine Waterston is a mesmerizing presence in her relatively few scenes. Assuming you can get into the film at all, you’ll want to see more of her, and of Del Toro, who as Sauncho is actually the most lucid and even keel character in the whole crazy affair.
But the assumption that audiences can and/or will get into something like this or even remain in their seats for the entire considerable length of the film (2 hrs, 28 minutes) is a huge assumption to make. The fact that Inherent Vice is as good an adaptation of the experience of reading Pynchon as we’re ever likely to get in mainstream cinema doesn’t make it a great or even a good film. After a while, the seemingly aimless progression of the film’s plotlines and all those clever and punny names inspired by gumshoe detective fiction of the past just gets tedious, and is sure to challenge the patience of even the most open-minded of film lovers, especially once you get to what’s supposed to be the payoff at the end.
Now, if you’ve read Pynchon and you enjoyed it, you’re likely to have what it takes to get through this film and actually enjoy it, too.
Otherwise, if you insist on seeing the film just so that you can say you saw the latest from Anderson, take this paraphrased advice given by the nameless waitress at the seaside diner where Sauncho meets Doc to give him on the lowdown on a certain mysterious ship that’s key to the story: “You’re going to want to get good and f—ed up before this [film].”
Score: 2 out of 5
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benecio Del Toro, Martin Short, Jena Malone, and Joanna Newsom. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Running Time: 148 minutes
Rated R for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence.