This sequence unfolds much as it does at the start of the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel (read excerpt of the first chapter to get the tone here). It’s the best scene in the movie. Shasta’s in trouble, and the extent of her problems soon become clear: she’s being drawn into a plot to do something very bad to her married older lover, California real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) who is improbably protected by the Aryan brotherhood. Shasta has come to Doc in his professional capacity as a private dick, gum sandal hippie style. The war between the freaks and the straights and their mutual lack of trust is front and center in Anderson’s movie. “Paranoia alert” indeed. This world is slippery and difficult to grab hold of–especially when most of the characters are addled out of their gourds. (Comparisons to “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” are not out of order.)
Soon various people are presenting themselves to Doc who are improbably connected to this sprawling conspiracy that leads to a vast organization called the Golden Fang, which we never quite comprehend. Many of the superb ensemble have just one or two scenes–Martin Short memorably makes his mark as a cork-snorting dentist to rich heroin addicts losing their teeth (at least I think that’s what it was)–while others become key characters, notably “Renaissance detective” Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin in a flat top), Doc’s troubled straight counterpart police detective with a sucking fetish who says, “sometimes it’s just about doing the right thing”; Coy Harlingen, an amiably lost surf-sax player snitch (Owen Wilson), well-informed countercultural lawyer buddy Sauncho Smilax (Benecio Del Toro), and Doc’s straight gal pal Sandy Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), a cheerfully helpful assistant D.A. who tells him to wash his feet before she comes over for beachside weed and sex. Doc smokes a lot of weed. I love his inane note-taking, as though writing things down in his haze will help.
Anderson had long wanted to adapt Pynchon–this marks the first movie to do so. Is it successful? That depends on what you demand from an L.A. detective mystery. This movie has already inspired critics to go to town with their takes on Pynchon, PTA and California noir–they’re the best reviews since the enigmatic Terrence Malick film “The Tree of Life.” That does not mean that “Inherent Vice” will satisfy a wide swath of moviegoers–even smart ones–although it will be a must-see for any self-respecting cinephile.
It helps if you’ve read the book. Even the press kit supplies details and context from the book that are missing from the movie. Clearly, Anderson struggled to adapt this complex, rich source material and expects his audience to be familiar with the Pynchon novel. Anyone who has not read it will be lost. As someone who has not read “Inherent Vice”–I caught up with his first chapter later–there are pleasures to be had from the movie, but comprehension is not one of them. Yes, I look forward to seeing the film again.
At the New York Film Festival after party at Tavern on the Green, I asked Anderson about an amazing shot where Doc is walking toward the dark entrance of a massage parlor in the middle of a wide open dusty construction site. As he enters, we see a glimpse in the deep background of camouflaged soldiers ducking down behind mounds of dirt. It’s unexplained. Anderson said there was a long complicated sequence in the book that provided inspiration for this cool quick sight gag. (At the press conference, he explained that he wanted to shoot on 35mm with a boxy aspect ratio suitable for the period.)
Except for the ending and the unreliable narrator –added to supply a much-needed female voice–the adaptation is faithful. Anderson also admitted that he gave up trying to make sense, using Howard Hawks and Jules Furthman’s famous Philip Marlowe movie “The Big Sleep” as his touchstone. “I couldn’t follow any of it,” Anderson said at the press conference. “It didn’t matter. I just wanted to see what happened next anyway. So that was a good model to follow.”