by Paul Deines
I get a shiver every time I sit down to a new Paul Thomas Anderson film. His last two, There Will Be Blood and The Master, were masterworks, warped, incisive explorations of American pathology. Now with Inherent Vice, the director takes a left-turn, adapting Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 lark about a stoner P.I. embroiled in interlocking conspiracies in Manson-era Los Angeles.
Anderson evidently loves the novel and wanted to bring it wholesale to the screen. I’m not sure if he accomplished this: Pynchon is a writer I just can’t make it through. All the obliqueness and narrative bloat I accept from Roth or a DeLillo I cannot deal with in Pynchon. So, perhaps I was coming to Inherent Vice with a deficit of trust, but I’m sad to say that Anderson has made a film that’s neither transcendent nor particularly entertaining.
The film follows Joaquin Phoenix’s ambling pot-addled protagonist, “Doc” Sportello, as he stumbles from one shady character to the next. It’s not so far removed from noir classics like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon, yarns where a sleuth takes on multiple parties’ cases, only to find it’s the same mystery in the end. This formula transferred well to a modern druggy setting in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (a film Anderson’s clearly emulating) and The Big Lebowski.
Here’s the problem: The Long Goodbye is shaggy, discursive structure. It’s also 45 minutes shorter than Inherent Vice. The Big Lebowski soars with the rich, cantankerous banter of its characters; this picture mumbles like a withdrawn stoner. That’s what Doc is for much of the story. Phoenix definitely finds verity playing a blitzed individual barely feigning sobriety, but his scenes – which would sing in rapid-fire – are often languid with puzzled pauses. They mostly tumble out like wooden blocks from a play bucket, and the worst are the most pivotal: Doc’s maneuverings around his airy, inflectionless lost-love-turned-femme-fatale Shasta (Katherine Waterston).
I’m going to take a step back here a moment.
There are other things to enjoy. A central plotline involving Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) and his wife Hope (Jena Malone) works. It starts with the revolting story of the pair’s first meeting. Malone relates this tale of vomit, diarrhea and heroin addiction with such wistfulness; I was won over. Wilson, hovering around the shadows, brings all his dew-eyed charm to a petrified undercover mole. As Anderson did with Adam Sandler in Punchdrunk Love, he finds a poignant pain out of an often clownish actor.
My favorite performance – and I suspect most audiences’ – is Josh Brolin’s as “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, Doc’s foil in the LAPD. With a severe buzz cut and boxy suits, he appears more like a stack a geometric shapes than a person. If Doc is the 60s at its most unmoored, Bigfoot is the looming bourgeois-ification of Nixon and Ford’s America. Yet beyond his aggression and bravado lies a subcutaneous malaise. Brolin’s best work (No Country for Old Men, Milk) forces him to contain emotion behind a brusque facade. Bigfoot – scarfing food, howling with frustration, assaulting Doc without provocation – is the comic incarnation of that tension.
There are fun one-or-two-off scenes, too, with Reese Witherspoon, Michael Kenneth Williams, Martin Short, Jefferson Mays and (former adult film actress) Michelle Sinclair. And though Anderson’s flawless photographic eye is rarely used to maximum effect here, he finds some wonderfully unsettling images on the margins: urban commandos diving out of sight, the silent mustachioed figure (rumored to be Pynchon himself)) behind a pane of glass, pacing behind a key interchange.
These details are nice, but I still found myself annoyed. Why are we 45 minutes in before we learn about Golden Fang, the central nefarious organization? How about the fact that our main heavy, the one who will precipitate in the climax, is not even referenced until more than halfway through the picture and we don’t see him until almost two hours for film? What purpose does Doc’s imaginary friend (Joanna Newsom) serve beyond delivering swaths of Pynchon narration?
Inherent Vice is about the death of a national idealism; at its best it captures the paranoid sense of encroaching malevolence in the form of rabid developers, neo-Nazi bikers, reactionary student groups. So, to a certain extent it fits into Anderson’s oeuvre of human stories that chart historic American disruptions. Daniel Plainview is unfettered American industrialism; Freddy Quell is the wounded spirit of post-War masculinity. The thing is, Quell and Plainview (and Dirk Diggler and Frank T.J. Mackey and Sydney) are compelling, dynamic characters. Doc and Shasta might have been on the page; not onscreen.