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Inherent Vice

21 April 2017

Inherent Vice (2014) is a long, quirky, uneven comedy; your enjoyment of it depends on your enthusiasm for early 1970s stoner culture, as well as your attitude about Pynchonís usual themes. Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson probably considered using an even sillier touch in his adaptation of Thomas Pynchonís novel. Instead, while goofy in some ways, Inherent Vice goes mainly for neo-noir (circa 1970) with lots of humorous bits to thrown in that you may only notice in subsequent viewings.

It can be a difficult film to get into. It helps if you have read the book, and it helps even more if you understood the novelís plot (which I did not fully understand upon first reading). The novel is outlandishly funny at times, though tempered with a sense of foreboding. It features hilarious dialogue, much of which Anderson takes into his script. But Anderson does not totally succeed in capturing Pynchonís authorial voice on screen─an admittedly near impossible task. Perhaps the movieís main deviation from the novel is the use of SortilŤge (Joanna Newsom) as a narrator. He picks the right character (and voice) for the job.

Inherent Vice follows Larry "Doc" Sportello, a stoner private investigator in LA. His ex-girl friend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), asks for his help. She's dating a real estate magnate named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), whose wife is plotting to take his fortune by committing him to a loony bin. (Wolfmann enriches himself trying to turn Southern California into one sprawling suburban development.)

Doc takes Shastaís case, which almost immediately connects with another case: †Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams), a black man worried about a dispute sum of money with his former prison cellmate, Glenn Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson), an Aryan Brotherhood member who now works as one of Wolfmann's bodyguards.

Following the plot may be difficult for some, especially when Doc mentions absurd Pynchon bad-guy character names like Adrian Prussia (and you havenít even seen them on screen yet). There are a lot of characters who appear in only a scene or two.

Joaquin Phoenix inhabits the skin of Doc Sportello. In the pre-title sequence I thought he seemed too old for the part (Doc is supposed to be 29 or so.) But these fears proved unfounded as Phoenix finds an earnest hippie persona to capture Doc. Doc tries to do right by people. However, it can sometimes be difficult to understand Phoenixís delivery.

The funniest moments in the film, as in the novel, come during the interactions between Doc and Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), an LAPD Lieutenant with a history of harassing Doc (and kicking his door in, hence his nickname). Bigfootís utter disdain for Docís drug-addled brain and hippie lifestyle is hilarious.

Paul Thomas Andersonís adaption is largely faithful to Pynchon's novel. The adaptation leaves out the entire Las Vegas trip from the book, which is a pity, as it was one of the bookís more entertaining interludes, and gave the book some range of motion. But at 149 minutes, this is already a long movie, and Anderson had to make some choices.

Many of Pynchonís novels (The Crying of Lot 49, Gravityís Rainbow) give the reader the sense of a vast conspiracy, which the protagonist is usually not able to apprehend the full shape of. I would have liked a clearer sense of the conspiracy Doc was swirling in. Thus, the Golden Fang plot is maybe not as clear as it could be.

Anderson gets good results out of some A-list supporting players. Reese Witherspoon has a nice supporting role, almost a cameo, as Docís sometime girlfriend Penny. Martin Short has a hilarious cameo as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, the coke-sniffing Golden Fang dentist.

Owen Wilson is well-cast as Coy Harlingen, a surf-band saxophone player turned government informant, who fakes his death but then has second thoughts about leaving his family behind. As in the book, this redemption subplot is somehow among the least interesting. It seems a bit forced, to show Doc working pro bono. But it also shows Pynchonís continued interest in hippie characters who are turned into police informers and even COINTELPRO-style infiltrators into the counterculture.

Inherent Vice will inevitably be compared to The Big Lebowski.   Doc is far more effective as a detective than the Dude, though admittedly less funny. Doc is a real PI, not someone who has a case thrust on him because he will botch it (like the Dude). At a key moment, Doc even makes an escape that the Dude could never have made. Doc has stoned hallucinations even while awake, whereas the Dudeís hallucinations come mainly as extended dream sequences.

Unfortunately, not all of the best dialogue from the novel made it into the screenplay. Some of the zinger lines in the dialogue donít come across as well as they should, and even sound a bit garbled.

Yet Inherent Vice is a movie that bears re-watching. Some of the more subtle humorous bits may be discovered on a second viewing. The plot, such as it is, may finally flicker into place.

Being a movie, Inherent Vice bears more the stamp of Paul Thomas Anderson than Thomas Pynchon. The atmosphere of nostalgia recalls Andersonís Boogie Nightsmore than the paranoid-vertigo trip of a Pynchon novel. The period details are vivid, but not overdone.

Inherent Vice is probably Pynchonís ďlightestĒ novel, so it makes sense that it was the first one to make it to the screen. Reportedly Anderson tried to adapt Pynchonís relatively accessible novel Vineland and gave up, but at least we have Inherent Vice.

Dan GeddesDan Geddes is the editor of The Satirist. In addition to satire, Geddes' serious criticism in The Satirist online has been widely cited in books, English courses, academic papers, newspapers, and websites. Geddes has written for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Dry Bones Review, and The Modern Word. His satirical work has also appeared in He lives in Amsterdam.