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Review: Paul Thomas Anderson Channels Pynchon’s Colorful and Meandering ‘Inherent Vice’

Review: Paul Thomas Anderson Channels Pynchon's Colorful and Meandering 'Inherent Vice'

We open on a woman narrator (a loopy astrologer played by singer Joanna Newsom) introducing us to her chum Doc Sportello (mutton-chopped Joaquin Phoenix) in 1970 Gordita Beach, California. He is soon visited by Shasta Fay Hepworth (lanky Sam Waterston sprig Katherine Waterston), a tall lass in a short skirt who knows full well the impact her beauty has on her ex-boyfriend. 

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.”

It’s no “Chinatown.” While PTA is a gifted writer-director, with Pynchon he has met his match. (“There Will Be Blood” was his other lit adaptation.) The first half hour satisfyingly resembles “Chinatown,” as our latter-day pot-steeped Jake Gittes is pulled into an ever-deepening mystery over which he cannot wrestle any control. He’s knocked out and implicated in a murder, there’s a missing femme fatale with a romantic-sexual hold over him (see Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray), a corrupt and powerful magnate who is overhauling California real estate (see John Huston’s Noah Cross), the sympathetic but ineffective city detective (see Perry Lopez’s Lieutenant Lou Escobar), a long-suffering office receptionist, etc. 
As the film progresses, intricate plotting and endless exposition ensue. By contrast, Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s “Chinatown” was a masterpiece of concision and clarity. No one is ever in doubt about what is going on. In “Inherent Vice,” while there are brilliant scenes–such as a five-minute single take talk-fest between Wilson and Phoenix as the camera slowly bores in–many long sections of declarative dialogue are tedious and overwhelming. There’s no absorbing them. “I was trying to be as faithful to the feeling of the book as possible,” said Anderson. 
Another apt comparison for this movie is Robert Altman’s countercultural valentine to Marlowe, “The Long Good-Bye,” which also looks disciplined by comparison. Anderson’s cast have explained how “chaotic” and “loose” the shoot was, describing a freewheeling improvisational atmosphere on set. 
Anderson needs to work on his women. In my notes on the movie: “lots of hot chicks.” Sure, the movie is slavishly based on Pynchon, but just about every woman in the film — except for Newsom, Malone’s ex-addict mom, Anderson’s wife Maya Rudolph in a throwaway receptionist role and telephone call Jeannie Berlin– is a babe, an overt sex object, someone to lust after. ‘Twas ever thus in movies, and Anderson breaks out discovery Waterston here, who delivers the most erotic femme fatale and climactic seduction scene in recent memory. Her parents were beaming with pride at the after party, but is that all she can do?
Anderson seems to have been somewhat aware of this issue as he added Newsom’s narration late in the game–it’s not in the book. At the press conference Anderson admitted he was trying to add a good female voice and “as I started doing it more and more, the more it worked.” There’s nothing wrong, gentlemen, with including deeper women characters who are not defined by their sexuality. 

This movie’s Oscar potential is limited because it’s a comedy. Certainly, Phoenix delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, and may turn up in the Golden Globes comedy category. But he did even better work in “Her.” The Best Actor race is seriously competitive this year. And none of the fleeting supporting roles will register with the Academy actors–maybe Josh Brolin. Critics will be passionately enthusiastic, and “Inherent Vice” will place on many ten bests lists. The look of the 70s movie is unexpected and jammed with nifty details; the score is packed with period riches as well as anachronistic contemporary music. 

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