There are bound to be problems when you hew too closely to the structure of an unfilmable novel.
It all may start to get a little peculiar…
The times they are a changing, it seems. Inherent Vice is probably getting more high-brow coverage than any stoner film really deserves, but that’s what happens when a phenomenal, esoteric filmmaker (I mean, did you see The Master?) adapts a novel by one of the world’s greatest post-modern authors.
Thomas Pynchon’s novels are generally deemed unfilmable, and for good reason. I read his debut novel, V., last summer, and the plot is barely discernible. A group of wild friends slum it up in post-war New York while drinking themselves into philosophical oblivion. Meanwhile, a second set of chapters chart the multiple identities of a mysterious woman across Europe during moments of historical crisis. That’s about as simple as you could describe it. V., like Pynchon’s other novels, isn’t really concerned with plot, but with an overarching feeling of confusion showcased through dozens of loosely-related episodes. His intent isn’t to tell you a story, but to convey a feeling and pepper it with philosophical discussions while blurring the lines between high and low culture. Like I said: unfilmable.
Inherent Vice is a little different, though. Many reviewers noted it as “Pynchon-lite” when it was published. It does have a loose plot, however inane it might be, and that’s what allows Anderson to attempt an adaptation. Detective stories, as Inherent Vice is on the surface, have been the basis for countless films and novels over the years. It’s a format we all know well. What’s interesting here is how Pynchon and Anderson set out to subvert our expectations. What reasonable person would hire a hippie stoner as a private investigator anyway?
Set on the southern California coast in the 1970s, and running parallel to the Manson Family murders, Inherent Vice opens with an unexpected encounter. Stoner private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) finds himself embroiled in a complicated mystery when a former flame, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), shows up at his beachside bungalow one night with news about an attempt to have a wealthy real estate mogul committed to an insane asylum. She asks Sportello to look into it before she disappears, thereby launching our protagonist into a murky, pot smoke-tinged mystery. Along the way he’ll meet a prostitute (Hong Chau), a former saxophone-playing police informant (Owen Wilson), an assistant D.A. (Reese Witherspoon), and a dozen others who have their hands involved in some facet of the mystery. It’s a wild, messy ride.
But a lengthy plot discussion is a waste of time. Anderson doesn’t really care, and neither should we. The disappearance of Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is really a MacGuffin that sets the plot into motion. The story may be “Pynchon-lite,” but that means it’s still a Pynchon creation, and the film is still an exploration of the author’s favorite themes. What follows is a series of episodes all loosely tied together through Doc’s hazy investigation. Anderson, true to the novel, is more concerned with Doc’s experience – the places he goes, the people he meets, and the culture he experiences – than the mystery itself.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s early films Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia were large ensemble pieces, but he soon tightened his focus with a series of films built on the emotional experiences of strong central characters. Inherent Vice is a return to that earlier style, featuring a sprawling, tangled web of characters, not least of which is the 1970s California setting itself. The film couldn’t possibly exist in any other time or place, as every cop, hippie and beach bum is a personification of the fractured views of the era. And all of this is really interesting, especially in Anderson’s hands. It’s not all that different from the golden age of 1970s pornography that he explored in Boogie Nights. Though he was too young to have really experienced the time period, he seems emotionally attached to it.
So we have an interesting premise, one of our greatest auteurs at the helm, and some talented actors along for the ride. Seems like a home run, right? Unfortunately, it isn’t. I’ll give Anderson this: he tries to be a great filmmaker. For him, there are no half-measures. He swings for the fences with everything he has, and it usually works out in his favor (Note: Tom Cruise does the exact same thing as an actor – it’s one of the reasons his performance in Anderon’s Magnolia is such a perfect synthesis of actor and film). Boogie Nights and There Will be Blood are two of my all-time favorite films. Unfortunately, when you swing for the fences, sometimes you miss. That’s Inherent Vice, which is almost certainly Anderson’s worst film.
Part of the problem is the pace. Inherent Vice never slows down to smell the flowers, which is kind of a weird thing to say. On one hand, nobody loves the long shot like Anderson. Whether a masterful tracking shot across the streets of Gordita Beach or just a long take of Doc Sportello conversing in his office, Anderson lets his camera linger unlike anyone else in Hollywood. Still, every encounter feels rushed in an effort to move on to the next one. No 148-minute film should feel this hurried. Part of that may be an over-devotion to Pynchon’s novel, as the film tries to cram everything into its run time. Still, I wouldn’t have wanted the film to be any longer.
There are some flashes of brilliance here, particularly a scene where Doc has a conversation with Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), the sax-playing police informant, about his desire (but inability) to return home to his wife and children. It’s one of the film’s quietest moments, and Anderson, as is his wont, is happy to linger here. The conversation plays out in a dark room, with our two characters seated in front of a pane of glass. As they talk enigmatically, faces slide in and out of view behind the glass. Coy just wants to go home, but the circumstances won’t let him. There would always be someone looking over his shoulder, just as there’s always someone in the glass. This particular scene is pure magic, as is one of Doc’s memories about a rainy afternoon he spent with Shasta before their relationship fell apart. These are the scenes that work, but they’re too few and far between. That’s the problem. In an effort to include as many characters and scenarios as possible, Anderson has sacrificed the emotional center of his story. He hews too close the structure of an inherently unfilmable novel.
Whether you know it or not, there’s been a big conversation behind the scenes at Fellowship of the Screen this year about failed masterpieces. As Rachel Gibson Shepherd lamented about the frustrating The Theory of Everything, “Don’t half-ass it. If you’re going to fail, fail with everything you’ve got!” Thankfully, that’s what Paul Thomas Anderson always does. Inherent Vice is not a great film (though it’s easy to see film junkies re-evaluating it 25 years down the road and saying that it is), but there’s a lot to respect here, and there’s a lot to enjoy. Nothing by anyone as talented as Paul Thomas Anderson is wholly bad. You’ll laugh. You’ll marvel at the skill on display. You’ll probably end up frustrated.
It all leaves me in a weird position. Is this one of the best films of the year? Absolutely not. But should you see it? I pray that you do. Thankfully, Anderson is still giving it everything he’s got. A spectacular failure may be a failure, but that also means it’s still spectacular.