Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin and Reese Witherspoon
On general release in the UK from 30 January 2015
Inherent Vice reads as though Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson had sat down to collaborate after working their way through a case of bourbon and 200g of top-quality skunk
Thomas Pynchon, author of eight enigmatic and densely plotted novels, starting with V. (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), is widely if uneasily regarded as one of the US’ foremost living novelists.
“Uneasily”, because it is often hard to tell just how far his novels, clearly the products of a highly sophisticated and ludic mind, are intended to be taken seriously. Pynchon loves to play games with words and concepts, scorning surface plausibility, often giving his characters ludicrously improbable names – Brock Vond, Frenesi Gates, Oedipa Maas – and having them converse in archly stylised dialogue. Along with Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, Pynchon is one of the leading proponents of Post-Modernism in American fiction, and Post-Modernist writing can leave many of its readers sensing that there’s a joke somewhere but uncertain just where it is, while suspecting that it may be on them.
To compound the disquiet, there is the elusive nature of Pynchon himself. Like the late J. D. Salinger, he is notoriously reclusive: he never gives interviews, has never appeared on television (except as a cartoon in The Simpsons in 2004, and even then “he” had a bag over his head), and authenticated photos of him are rare. The nearest he has yet come to revealing himself in person is in the introduction to Slow Learner, a collection of his early short stories that he published in 1984. There he casts a critical but indulgent eye over some specimens of his tyro writing – and over his younger self, “the writer who seemed then to be emerging, with his bad habits, dumb theories and occasional moments of productive silence in which he may have begun to get a glimpse of how it was done”.
So it is perhaps not surprising that, although Pynchon’s novels sell in more than respectable quantities, film-makers have so far fought shy of adapting them for the screen. Hitherto only one film has drawn on his writing: an obscure German language film from 2002, Prüfstand 7 (TestStand 7), which apparently incorporates “elements” of Pynchon’s most celebrated novel, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). But now we have a full-blown, star-studded Hollywood adaptation of his seventh novel, Inherent Vice (2009) – scripted and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
If any American director were to have the audacity to take on a Pynchon novel, the smart money would always have been on Anderson. His six previous films, all startlingly original, have included a two-decade trawl through the porn industry (Boogie Nights, 1997); a multi-stranded ensemble piece culminating in a plague of frogs descending on Los Angeles (Magnolia, 1999); an epic account of the early years of the US oil industry showcasing a toweringly rebarbative performance from Daniel Day Lewis (There Will Be Blood, 2007); and a lightly disguised portrayal of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (The Master, 2012). He has even achieved something no other film-maker has come near to doing: making a bearable film starring Adam Sandler (Punch-Drunk Love, 2002).
Of all Pynchon’s novels to date, Inherent Vice probably lends itself most readily (or puts up least resistance) to cinematic adaptation. A private eye tale set in 1970 LA, it reads as though Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson had sat down to collaborate after working their way through a case of bourbon and 200g of top-quality skunk. The protagonist, private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello (his nickname comes not from any medical qualification, but from his practice, during previous employment tracking down fugitives, of using a hypodermic full of truth serum as a means of extracting information), is visited by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth. She is now the mistress of billionaire property developer Mickey Wolfmann; Wolfmann’s wife, she tells Doc, is plotting with her muscle-hunk boyfriend to have her husband committed so that she can grab his assets. Shasta Fay then vanishes and Doc sets out to discover what has become of her, of Wolfmann and of a tenor sax player named Coy Harlingen who seems, in some undefined fashion, to be central to the investigation.
Along the way Doc is helped or hindered by a plethora of outlandish characters, including a brutal LAPD detective, Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, who loathes “hippy scum”; Doc’s beach-dwelling lawyer Sauncho Smilax; a Chinese masseuse-cum-hooker called Jade; his on-off lover, deputy DA Penny Kimball; the grim FBI special agents Flatweed and Borderline; a gang of Aryan Brotherhood bikers…and far too many more to enumerate. A key element in the intrigue is an entity called the Golden Fang, which may be a missing schooner, an Indo-Chinese dope-smuggling syndicate, a cartel of tax-dodging dentists – or all three. But since Doc is stoned out of his mind most of the time, Inherent Vice becomes less of a whodunit than a “WTF happened?”
Anderson, to his credit, has remained remarkably faithful to his source material. Director and novelist share a love of drawing equally on high and low culture; and according to his lead actor, Joaquin Phoenix, Anderson talked extensively with Pynchon while writing the script. (Anderson teasingly denies this, adding: “I don’t know if [Pynchon] even exists.”) Inevitably he has thinned out the swarming dramatis personae, has dropped a side-excursion to Las Vegas and, to clarify the action, has gifted intermittent voice-over narration to a minor personage in the book, braided surf philosopher and earth mother Sortilège. That apart, though, the film preserves the story, the characters, the flip, blitzed-out tone and the freewheeling structure of Pynchon’s novel with impressive fidelity. Much of the dialogue is lifted straight from the original.
Even more than Magnolia, Anderson’s finest ensemble piece to date, Inherent Vice deploys an impressively high-powered cast, many of them onscreen for no more than a few minutes. Phoenix, who also starred in The Master, plays Doc with an air of amiably woozy dedication and bushy sideburns extensive enough to rate their own postal district. Josh Brolin makes the flat-topped “Bigfoot” Bjornsen an unexpectedly pathetic figure, hen-pecked and consumed with a craving for Froot Loops. Memorable cameos come, inter alia, from Martin Donovan as a dangerously urbane patrician and an all-too-briefly glimpsed Martin Short as a frenetically lecherous dentist. The film’s acting revelation, though, is Katherine Waterston (daughter of veteran actor Sam Waterston) as Shasta Fay. In a six-minute unbroken take towards the end of the film, she gradually strips naked while explaining a sizeable chunk of the plot to the spaced-out Doc, before laying herself face-down across his lap and goading him into spanking her.
Perhaps feeling that his basic material is rich and ripe enough already, Anderson largely forgoes the stylistic flamboyance of his earlier work, letting what is in front of his camera provide the excess. Humour is plentiful, from the antics of Doc’s sidekick Denis (always pronounced to rhyme with “penis”), still more stoned than his employer, to the fictional thoroughfare named after the least-remembered of the Marx Brothers, Gummo. But despite all this and the absurdist gusto of the narrative, the lasting impression of Inherent Vice (film no less than novel) is one of regretful nostalgia – what Anderson has described as “that kind of sweet, dripping aching for the past”.
Pynchon’s time-setting is precise: we are in 1970, and the 1960s hippy counter-culture dream of peace and love is dying if not dead, soured by the aftertaste of the Manson Family killings and overshadowed by the encroaching paranoia of the Nixon era. And as Doc muses, perhaps “the faithless money-driven world…had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power…for the ancient forces of greed and fear?” In the last analysis, the melancholy of a Neil Young song (several of which feature on the soundtrack) hangs over the film, leaving us with, in Anderson’s words, “the sense of a lost American promise”.