Thomas Pynchon is one of the most enigmatic authors in American literary history. In the late sixties and seventies, he wrote three novels that were immediately hailed as dense, mysterious, groundbreaking masterpieces. Then he disappeared for seventeen years, almost literally, as the elusive Pynchon is rarely photographed or interviewed. Since then, he's sporadically published five new novels over the last two decades. Among those are “Inherent Vice.” Though his later books are a little more feasible, Pynchon's work has often been considered unfilmable. That's the sort of challenge Paul Thomas Anderson is up to. Written concurrently with “The Master,” “Inherent Vice” would be the first film adaptation of Pynchon's writing. It's also Anderson's most baffling movie yet.
I've never read “Inherent Vice's” source novel or any of Pynchon's fiction, for that matter. As a novice, “Inherent Vice” struck me as very difficult to follow. I had the Wikipedia plot description on-screen the whole time and was still lost most of the time. But here's the plot, as far as I can tell: Doc Sportello is a private investigator who lives in beach-side California and smokes too much pot. One day, estranged girlfriend Shasta re-enters his office and tells him about a conspiracy involving a local business developer. Doc soon stumbles into a convoluted adventure. He encounters police corruption, several dead bodies, a vicious Neo-Nazi, and a drug smuggling ring called the Golden Fang. All the while, Doc yearns for Shasta, who has gone missing.
Time and setting remains incredibly important to Paul Thomas Anderson. “Inherent Vice” is set in 1970, right around the time when sixties hippy idealism was souring into seventies hedonism. The film tosses every social issue of the time into one film. The Manson murders cast a long shadow over the story. Repeatedly, the police referenced the murders, showing a clear paranoia about hippy death cults. Cults crop up in other aspects of the story. As do Aryan hate groups, black militants, motorcycle gangs, prostitution, decadent sex, business growing out of control, and drug smuggling. And drugs in general. Just lots and lots of drugs. “Inherent Vice” certainly succeeds in capturing the feeling of the day.
Raymond Chandler style film noir, a detective story with about a thousand false starts and leads, all winding around each other as our hero bumbles towards some sort of resolution. “Inherent Vice” is even less interested in making sense than stories of this type usually are. The film bogs down the Chandler-esque dense plotting with a druggy haze. Now the characters are just as confused as the audience is. By the end, it's apparent that the plot isn't really important or even meant to make sense. Instead, the characters and scenarios are meant to amuse us.
Which would be less of a problem if “Inherent Vice” was actually funny. Anderon has described the film as a comedy. He has cited Cheech and Chong and Zuckers/Abrahams/Zuckers as influences. Don't expect a festival of laughs though. Occasionally, a moment emerges out of the movie's pot-cloud haze that connects with the viewer's funny bone. The narration, provided by nasally voiced singer Joanna Newsom, interacts with the story in a frequently sarcastic, observational way. Honestly, one of the biggest laughs in “Inherent Vice” involves Doc being elbowed by a cop and stumbling to the ground, all in one continuous shot, of course. Otherwise, the movie seems to think that its characters reacting to the twisting story in a stoned out, confused manner is humor enough.
The film's anemic attempts at humor are exacerbated by a pace that moves in fits and starts. Anderson's films, despite their length, are usually excellently paced. “Inherent Vice,” however, feels exactly as long as it is. One assumes that this was a deliberate choice. The movie sets out to replicate the constantly stoned mindset of the main characters. And it does it a little too well. To a sober viewer, the film's pace drags. Scenes go on too long. There are frequent detours in the narrative, none of which end up meaning anything. I get that the shapeless story was intentional. Yet, when combined with a far too slow pacing, it comes off as more annoying than anything else.
In truth, the only time “Inherent Vice” collects itself into something coherent is when focusing on Doc and Shasta's romance. Katherine Waterston's performance dominates every scene she's in. She reenters Doc's life in the first scene and you immediately understand why he spends the rest of the film chasing her. His flashbacks to happier days are wistful and touching. He longs for the youthful innocence they shared. One sequence, devoted to the two wandering around the rain, is enchanting but tinged with melancholy. When Shasta suddenly reappears near the end, the film builds towards a genuinely erotic moment. A very nude Waterson approaches Phoenix, teasing and seducing him, until he's overcome by lust. Waterson's performance is enticing. Doc's need to be reunited with her is the only clear narrative drive “Inherent Vice” has.
The only actual star “Inherent Vice” has besides Phoenix and Waterson is Josh Brolin. As Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornson, Brolin shifts between the ultimate square, the gruff of voice of abused authority, and something more unhinged. Otherwise, “Inherent Vice” populates it supporting cast with big names in bit parts. Benicio del Toro appears as Doc's lawyer, bringing some sleazy charm to the part. Reese Witherspoon shows up as the Deputy D.A. that has a fling with Doc, despite them being incredibly different. Michael K. Wiliams is one scene as the black militant who gives the detective a clue. Jena Malone delivers some absurd dialogue about heroin. Owen Wilson drifts in and out of scenes as Malone's missing husband. Out of these guest stars, the most interesting is former porn star Michelle Sinclair, better known as Belladonna. Sinclair shows a clear attitude and charm, stealing the scene she's in.
As “Inherent Vice” clatters towards its conclusion, the film finally begins to pick up some steam. Doc encounters an enemy that is suddenly introduced, just as pointless as any of the other skirmishes in the script. It quickly evolves into an actual climax, Doc facing down a Neo-Nazi and another bad guy. That forms into a decent confrontation between the drug ring and Bigfoot. It makes as much sense as the rest of the film – which is to say, none at all – but at least there's some sort of purpose to these moments. The movie pulls itself together enough to take the exhausting run time out on something interesting.
“Inherent Vice” may not have the precision screenplay you've come to expect from Paul Thomas Anderson's previous films. But at least his immaculate visual sense is maintained. There's a number of memorable shots in the film. One of my favorite moments occurs on a fog-strewn pier, characters appearing in and out of the fog as if by magic. Another interesting visual component of “Inherent Vice” is its set design. The Golden Fang building is a unique sight, as is its interior, decorated with gold and red objects. The costume design similarly shaggy but coordinated. If “Inherent Vice” attracts a cult audience, which seems likely, Doc Sportello's hat and coat combo will likely become a fan favorite.