An enigma, surrounded by mystery, wrapped in rolling papers, Thomas Pynchon is a famously reclusive novelist who is less famously resistant to any popular adaptation. Who would be foolish enough to even try? His most celebrated work, the 1973 absurdist WWII epic Gravity’s Rainbow , looms large over the landscape of postwar American literature. But its scale, thematic density and typically near-impenetrable “plot” would make dramatization a fairly hopeless endeavor. (German filmmaker Robert Bramkamp did make a partial stab in the little-seen 2002 Prüfstand VII , but that semi-documentary was more of an homage, as it incorporated select staged scenes from Gravity’s Rainbow in its study of military rocket development history.) After that career peak, Pynchon disappeared—not that he’d exactly been visible to begin with. Seemingly out of the blue he resurfaced nearly two decades later with Vineland , and has published four more novels since while managing to stay otherwise entirely out of the public gaze in an era of ever-shrinking privacy. Now 77, Pynchon has stuck around long enough to attract the dedicated attention of the one filmmaker who might make something more than a simple folly of adapting his work: Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer-director of The Master , There Will Be Blood , Magnolia and Boogie Nights . Anderson has an idiosyncratic ambitiousness, even in his smaller films (Punch-Drunk Love , Hard Eight ) that in some respects is more typically literary than cinematic. Even so, in making just his second adaptation of someone else’s work (There Will Be Blood was loosely inspired by Upton Sinclair’s Oil! ), he’s played it relatively “safe” in choosing Pynchon’s most lightweight book, the 2009 Cali counterculture detective mystery Inherent Vice .
What seems breezy by this author’s standards might well seem impenetrable for unprepared readers, however. Inherent Vice is ostensibly a detective story, in that it’s about a detective investigating a case. But the private eye in question is hardly a conventional tough guy, or even a fellow with a reliably level head. Indeed, Larry “Doc” Sportello is a figure of such unquestionably monumental and historied stonerdom that one marvels he ever arrived at a profession, let alone one involving research, deduction, or simply getting out of bed once in a while. The case he’s hired to isn’t so much solved by him as eventually self-resolving; in the interim, Doc doesn’t investigate so much as get nose-led through a labyrinth of beat-downs, dead ends and miscellaneous weirdnesses that seem designed primarily to freak him out. But then such is the temper of the times: It’s Los Angeles, 1970, and the sunny SoCal world of debauchery has just been darkened by the Manson Family murders. Plus, at this stage of partying like an 18-year-old for god knows how long (perhaps to the brink of 40), Doc is just naturally the paranoid type. So much so that he must occasionally write notes-to-self like “NOT HALLUCINATING.” (He can’t be sure: After all, sometimes the TV talks directly to him.)
In Anderson’s movie, Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc, and with his giant mutton chop sideburns and shoulder-length hair he’s as bemusedly vague a presence as the actor was a sharp and angular one for the same director in The Master . This Doc is vegging in his pad near the beach one night when erstwhile old lady Shasta (Katherine Waterston) shows up unannounced, begging him to help her protect a missing benefactor, a local real estate magnate whom she says is at risk of being shanghaied (even institutionalized) for his wealth by various hangers-on.
This mission promptly engulfs Doc as whale did Jonah, taking him on a clammy ride to destinations unknown. Among those he accosts or is accosted by en route are characters played by Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, musician Joanna Newsom, Benicio del Toro, Jeannie Berlin, Eric Roberts, Michael K. Williams, Martin Donovan, Jena Malone, Martin Short and many more. His constant nemesis (and sometime helpmate) is Josh Brolin as Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, an LAPD hardass with no love for hippies but a soft spot for Hollywood.
Inherent Vice the movie has gotten some rave reviews, but also been called “incoherent” by people who clearly haven’t read the book—because if they had, they would have known not to even try searching for conventional plot logic, let alone “meaning.” Inherent Vice the novel is a detective mystery only in that it uses that form as a superficial hook on which to hang its tangled tale, and uses its conventions to parody the expectations one might normally have of such a narrative. If you go looking for a standard crime, list of suspects, and resolution here, the joke’s on you. Like every Pynchon protagonist, Doc is a hapless antihero bumbling through something seemingly conspiratorial, and certainly much larger than he can fully grasp. (Like Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow , he’s a sort of termite at the hell of the Great Sphinx.) But while there are sinister elements in this tale, Doc is somewhat protected by his constant, ever-shifting chemical haze; he’s too high to truly feel the pain of any hard knocks, literal or figurative. Like everybody else in this waking California dream, he’s willfully blinded by his own little slice of the pervasive sunshine.
Inevitably, Anderson’s film recalls some of the loopy, meandering, inventive cinema of the ’70s, when filmmakers like Robert Altman and Michael Ritchie could make mainstream (if seldom very popular) movies that mixed satire, genre tropes and New Hollywood cool in ways that would seem very unusual now. (Indeed, one remarkable thing about Paul Thomas Anderson is that he’s managed to build a career that might have made so much more sense 30 or 40 years earlier.) But this movie, like the book before it, also pays homage to other novelists mostly long gone, most of whom probably were influenced by Pynchon but who kept plugging away with diminishing returns at the counterculture novel while he went off on his long sabbatical. In its antic absurdism, Inherent Vice is an acid flashback that tips Panama hat to the likes of Richard Brautigan, Tom Robbins, Thomas McGuane, Kurt Vonnegut, and others.
Will it make any sense whatsoever to those with no sense of that cultural history? Endlessly eccentric in everything from performance rhythms to some exceptionally lengthy shots, this movie may prove even more of a divisive crapshoot for viewers than The Master or There Will Be Blood were. For those who “get” and go with its droll herbal flow (though it’s hardly Up in Smoke Part Deux), it will be intoxicating: Uneven, yes, and sometimes perilously frail, but delightfully, even magically off-kilter. For others, it may well seem lifeless and pointless, a two-and-a-half-hour shaggy dog story with no payoff. Both reactions are perfectly valid.
But I pity those whom Inherent Vice leaves cold. They’re like sober onlookers standing by stone-faced while the fully initiated giggle helplessly at some private in-joke that probably isn’t really all that funny—but who cares, because to those under the influence it’s utterly hysterical.
Inherent Vice opens Friday, January 9 at Bay Area theaters.
Dennis Harvey has been publishing film reviews since the era of the typewriter. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and currently writes for Variety and Fandor’s Keyframe.