Thomas Pynchon’s novels are full of puns and digressions, of references to contemporary pop culture and to philosophical, theological and even scientific ideas. They are permeated with paranoia, conspiracy theories and drugs. Lots of drugs, They are also, at times, somewhat laidback. Most —“V,” “Gravity’s Rainbow,” “Mason and Dixon,” “Against the Day”— are hefty in size, so hefty they could be used as a lethal weapon. And that’s just the tip of the Pynchonian iceberg.
Pynchon demands the reader’s attention; there is no catering to the lowest common denominator or the ADD-addled minds of this digital era. He asks the reader to tune into his very unique wavelength, to go with the flow. To adapt them to any media, especially film, is well nigh impossible. Yet, this did not stop director Paul Thomas Anderson from taking on the Herculean task of bringing “Inherent Vice” —for many critics, Pynchon’s most accessible work— to the big screen with Pynchon’s blessing. Like Pynchon’s work, the movie demands the viewer’s complete attention. It even requires and rewards multiple viewings.
The setting is 1970s California. The counterculture has fizzled out and Nixon, Reagan and Orange County’s white community have taken over the political landscape. Private Eye Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is minding his own business at home when who should walk in but his ex-girlfriend and the film’s first of many counter-cultural femme fatales, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterstone). She asks for Doc’s help in finding the whereabouts of her current lover, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), the victim of a scheme by his wife and her lover to lock him away in a loony bin. Doc agrees to look into the matter and soon finds himself enmeshed in a confusing web of coincidences: a black militant group wants some money back from Wolfmann, a member of an Aryan organization Wolfmann hangs out with is murdered (and Doc is briefly framed for it), and the Justice Department and the FBI want to broker a deal with Wolfmann to take over part of Las Vegas.
Enter stage right, the film’s most colorful character: Lieutenant Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a tough-talking, flattop-wearing, hippie-hating, chocolate-covered-bananas-chewing police officer with an occasional TV series or commercial gig on the side. He is the yang to Doc’s ying. Tormenting Doc gives him great pleasure. He is also a sounding board to Doc’s not so wild theories. Doc is also tracking down a musician who faked his death to work undercover for the feds. Both cases lead him to an organization called the Golden Fang, also the name of a ship used to smuggle drugs into the country.
Like the Coen Brothers with “The Big Lebowski,” Robert Altman with “The Last Goodbye” and so many others before him, Anderson subverts the conventions of film noir and the detective novel while sticking to them. He replaces the traditional, private eye-driven voice-over narration with one delivered by a minor character, the astrologer Sortilege (Joanne Newsom), who comments on both the milieu and the action while describing it, even though she is not clearly part of the events. Her voice adds another layer to the story as we begin to question what we see.
Then there are all those plot threads that Anderson deliberately leaves unresolved. Some viewers who prefer their stories to be resolved niftily and tidily will leave the theater frustrated. But Anderson and Pynchon wouldn’t have it any other way. They want the action and the words to wash over you, they happily meander from one moment to the next. But while most filmmakers would have opted for a more hallucinogenic approach to this material, Anderson plays it straight, knowing when and how to extract the right comedic touches to a scene. He eschews his often-showy style (the long tracking shots of “Boogie Nights,” the mostly silent opening scene of “There Will Be Blood”). He prefers to focus on his actors’ faces. “Inherent Vice” is a movie full of close-ups and medium shots. Sometimes the characters stare off-screen, the camera tight on them, suggesting that there is more to this world than meets the eye, more than a simple establishing shot could show.
Like Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson knows how to build an ensemble of actors who can bring to life the world he is building. “Inherent Vice” is no different. Led by Joaquin Phoenix’s relaxed, bemused and even playful performance as Doc, the actors here embody the worst and the best of 1970s Los Angeles. There is a sad, vulnerable veneer to most of them. Katherine Waterstone, for instance, endows her character with a sadness that belies her femme fatale roots. And then there are those who, like Martin Short’s cocaine-sniffing horny dentist and Benicio del Toro’s too-normal-for-this-world attorney, bring to the film a wild, demented spark.
Jonny Greenwood’s music and the song selection are equally counterintuitive. Where one would expect tunes from the Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane playing in the background, Anderson has chosen two melancholic songs by Neil Young as well as lesser known tracks from the era as accompaniment to Greenwood’s sad, sometimes melodramatic score.