By contributor Spencer Wilson
Leave it to legendary director Paul Thomas Anderson to immaculately adapt the first ever film of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Diving into the world of Inherent Vice feels like you are revisiting Boogie Nights (1977), but with a touch of oneiric reality thanks to the cast’s heavy drug use. Inherent Vice reads like the 2009 novel, but that doesn’t hold it back from using the language of film to the best of its abilities.
Oneiric filmmaking has been a long staple of multi-Oscar nominee Paul Thomas Anderson. Although his films are often rooted in reality, the editing carries careful attention to flowing through events like they were memories, maintaining just enough ellipses so the audience can understand the effect without getting lost. This style is not used as heavily as it was in Anderson’s last film, The Master (2012), which helps the film flow as if you were reading the book.
Inherent Vice opens with the mysterious hippy, Sortilège (Joanna Newsom in the first film), telling us about private investigator and heavy narcotics user, Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). Doc’s old girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who has now become what Sortilège calls “of the straight world persuasion,” approaches him with a case involving her boss, powerhouse real estate developer Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts). Shasta says that Mickey’s wife and his wife’s boyfriend are orchestrating a plot to throw Mickey in a mental institute. Doc takes on the case while still taking on side jobs, and soon finds that many of them intertwine with the recent disappearance of Mickey Wolfman and the presence of the insidious cocaine cartel Golden Fang. The drug-crazed atmosphere heavily invokes that of California in Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) (if Slouching were a comedic mystery novel) thanks to Doc’s “thinking comes later” form of detective style.
Following Doc’s every move is the hulking, crew-cut sporting police detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who carries a bizarre working relationship with Doc throughout the case. Bigfoot is also on the look for the recently disappeared Mickey Wolfman and suspects Doc has something to do with it after wrongly accusing him for murdering one of Wolfman’s associates, who also happens to be of the Aryan Brotherhood. Why Bigfoot gives Doc a break is never made clear, but his interactions suggest that he used to be a hippy just like Doc.
Understanding the plot beyond that point will probably require you to Wikipedia the rest of it. Similar to Howard Hawks’ confusing film-noir The Big Sleep (1946), Inherent Vice does such a good job of evoking the atmosphere and aesthetic of the time that it’s easy to get lost in all the long eyelashes, sparkling lipsticks, marijuana fogs, one-inch-too-short dresses, and ‘60s stoner rock songs—and this is for a film that takes its time.
Film-wise, there isn’t a single wasted shot or cut in the movie. As Doc gets higher, the camera closes in more and more on him, to the point where simple things passing the screen become startling, as if you were too strung-out to expect them yourself. When Doc isn’t doing drugs, the sometimes incredibly long takes are juxtaposed by seconds-long sex scenes that make sex feel like just another drug that the characters take for a quick thrill.
Inherent Vice may not be one of Anderson’s best films thanks to the difficult plot, but that doesn’t matter when the language of the film does such a good job of evoking the landscape of 1970s Los Angeles. What it lacks in clarity it makes up for in beauty and laughter. Like any Paul Thomas Anderson film, this one deserves a watch.
More films by Paul Thomas Anderson