Before you read anything else about Inherent Vice, the latest project from lauded auteur filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, I urge you to watch the trailer. Like, right now. The trailer’s uncanny comedic timing, musical exuberance, and oddball stoner-noir narration (courtesy of Joanna Newsom) come together with stunning clarity into what could be described as a sort of multi-sensory poem, enthusiastically recited by many of my friends at even the slightest provocation. Had I not enjoyed the film as much as I did, I would, regardless, return again and again to the trailer for its little shot of pure, gleeful filmmaking excellence.
Defined loosely, which is not to say that it ever becomes much clearer than this, Inherent Vice follows Lou “Doc” Sportello, a private investigator, as he tracks down a lead from his “ex old-lady,” to the effect that a prominent L.A. land developer may be the target of a conspiracy to kidnap him and “throw him in a looney bin.” The story his ex, Shasta Fay, tells him is quickly lent credence by the subsequent disappearance of said land developer, Michael Z. Wolfmann, and his girlfriend, Shasta, along with a number of increasingly improbable coincidences which escalate erratically and confusingly. The film proceeds as a series of vignettes, almost a collection of short stories chronicling Doc’s misadventures through a palatial Beverly Hills estate, an under-construction housing development complete with a temporary brothel and “commanding views” of the Dominguez channel, strange and sinister headquarters of a mysterious corporation of dentists, the bacchanalia of a surf-jazz band’s party pad, various Halls of Justice where Doc hustles and is hustled, and, of course, the aforementioned looney bin.
Anderson wanders amiably through one-hundred forty-eight minutes with such gleeful disarray that some, perhaps many, will confuse it for incoherence. The chances of doing so drop somewhat if you’ve read the novel, which I absolutely recommend, though not, as others have recently noted, necessarily before the film. Thomas Pynchon’s seemingly straightforward detective novel thwarts readers interested in big conclusions and clear answers by leaving much of the story hanging in the periphery, unresolved and undefined. There seems to be some kind of conspiracy at work, but is it truly a vast and secretly sinister effort, or is it merely hippy externalization of ethically compromising, but practically necessary behavior? “People like you,” asserts a particularly bourgeoisie lawyer to Doc, when the subject comes up, “lose all claim to respect the first time they pay anybody rent.”
Despite a relaxed overall aesthetic, the dialog is generally tight, consisting mostly of material from the novel repeated verbatim, and punctuated only occasionally by changes which mask the deletion of a few lesser subplots. The cast, it almost goes without saying, are uniformly excellent. Phoenix, Brolin, and Witherspoon (criminally underused) especially deliver much of the nuance that might otherwise be lost in translation from page to silver screen. Most importantly, Anderson preserves the ambiguity and the uncertainty which lie at the core of the novel, and which many a lesser filmmaker might have attempted to resolve further. It’s a brave and important choice, ultimately effective, but with the consequence of limiting the film’s potential reach. Inherent Vice may never be seen by so many as Gone Girl, 2014’s other high- caliber adaptation, but may well strike more of a chord with Pynchon’s own audience, as well as Anderson aficionados and film geeks in general.
For those who do see the film, there is a great deal of insight lurking just behind the curtain of cannabis smoke and L.A. smog. Inherent Vice shows us a time in America where the deep-seated distrust between the Left and the Right was coming to define politics, when cheap and prolific housing gave birth to the suburb and all its corollaries, and when the foundations of the War on Drugs were being laid in the marble halls of the state and national capitols. The novel concludes somewhat more poignantly on some of these subjects, but where Anderson trims verbal specificity, he maintains emotional clarity—the understanding of our plight, of our failures and our hopes, is the same.
Johnson Hagood is an aimless millennial living in Southern California, where he did not grow up, despite being a long-hair and everything. You can follow him on instagram @ants_in_my_eyes where he quotes Kanye West and brags about how much money he wastes on expensive craft beer.