Paul Thomas Anderson’s Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is a stylistic triumph you’ll stop thinking about within a week of viewing it. This is not to say it isn’t great—almost anyone else could produce it and expect a highly recommended—but Paul Thomas Anderson is not anybody else, and he’ll have to content himself with the firmest recommendation I’ve ever given.
This is not to say there weren’t significant hurdles to overcome. Both PTA and Pynchon are such rigid stylists, it seems foolish to expect them to coexist without something being lost in the compromise. The acronym PTA calls to mind tracking shots and—depending on the portion of his work you empathise with—either pretension and chintzy symbolism, or sincerity and authenticity.1 In a similar but different way, Pynchon’s name calls to mind some combination of audacity, pretension, and song lyrics indented to the middle of the page. But Inherent Vice—Pynchon’s least Pynchon-y novel—seems most appropriate for the Paul Thomas Anderson treatment. The California locale and comedy-cum-drama vibe fit both conceptually and practically with the Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love portion of PTA’s career, the period where you can still tell he’s still surprised he’s making anything, let alone career-defining films.
Inherent Vice follows Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a weed-brained private investigator stringing together small assignments from his beachside haunt. People unfamiliar with Pynchon’s novel may find Inherent Vice‘s construction confusing. It is a series of interrelated vignettes so closely interspersed that the narrative is somehow seamless while also jarring. Characters shuffle in and out; promising leads turn out to be meaningless. We are meant to approach the events portrayed on the screen from the same joint-induced stupor that Doc does, and the film is at its most successful when we’re weaving between subplots almost ignorant to the connections between them.2 In the absence of any concrete plot to focus on, and with character becoming something of an afterthought, PTA’s film instead wants to focus on tone. Here, I might revise an earlier criticism: Inherent Vice is a stylistic triumph that you’ll stop thinking about, but only because it’s much easier to think about film in terms of its plot. The film is profoundly memorable in terms of tone, and the experience of trying to marry that tone to any event or series of events in the novel seems consistent with what PTA is doing with Doc’s hazy mind.
PTA remains one of American cinema’s most visual directors and Inherent Vice maintains his reputation for evoking history through the colours and grain on the screen.3 He’s still shooting on film and gives Doc’s Beach the same finicky blurriness you would get from Betamax SD.4 The film seems to take place beneath a quarter-inch of smoke, with a slight sheen to the edges that recalls being benignly stoned. The same effect is carried through Jonny Greenwood’s score, which conveys Doc’s constant information overload through stuffy and sometimes chaotic compositions.
The performances are broadly successful, but the biggest criticism of Pynchon—that he’s incapable of giving characters depth beyond allusion—has never rang truer than when you see them rendered without his voice on the screen. Bigfoot Bjornsen is more than capably performed by Josh Brolin, and has a number of notable scenes—though the speed with which he segues between funny and serious does less to enforce the film’s tragicomic tone than it does to reveal some structural problems with the source material. The same applies to the cast broadly but is not a criticism of performance. Anderson firmly remains an actor’s director, and continues to wring quality from previous underperformers like Phoenix and Wilson—he just wasn’t given much material to work with here.
My main gripe with the film is PTA’s apparent reluctance to doctor the source material. So much of the tone in Pynchon’s novel is in the way he appropriates the voices of the era into the text and, refusing to do this beyond Joanna Newsom’s narration, Anderson seems unwilling to alter the source material to allow the ideas visual form. Scenes which played out with a kind of whimsical surrealism in the novel are rendered mutely literal on the screen. This is, once again, a targeted criticism. So many sequences in Inherent Vice (minimal spoilers: hospital, dentist’s office, television) manifest a kind of technicolor kineticism,5 but you can tell he’s treating others merely as the punch-holes between frames—the stuff we’ve got to grin and bear until the fun resumes.
Thematically as well, the film is marooned from his previous work. Where Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and The Master all deal with fathers and their fraught relationships with sons (or just family generally, cf. Punch-Drunk Love), Inherent Vice is composed of themes so Pynchonesque it feels asinine saying them: there is much anxiety, much bureaucracy, and red-herrings by the net. While this might be a welcome departure for audiences tired of Anderson’s repetition, it sits uneasily in his oeuvre as a whole.
The result is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most benign film. Easily worth watching, it pales only when compared to the director’s previous work. We’ve seen the way PTA transmuted Upton Sinclair’s pulpy Oil into a masterpiece in There Will Be Blood, and can’t help but wonder what could have been had he treated Pynchon’s similarly.6
Around the Staff