Watching Inherent Vice, it’s easy to see Paul Thomas Anderson loves his source material, his actors, and 70s-era LA. Anderson’s take on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is an entertaining ride, suffusing melancholic nostalgia with druggy irreverence. But the film is likely to fall just short for fans the novel.
Aside from some changes to the central plot, the movie is like a really stripped-down version of the book. The most prominent and interesting departure Anderson makes is his use of a minor character as the novel’s omniscient narrator. This lets him deliver some of Pynchon’s prose verbatim, a trick he gets away with because, goofily enough, the character is a psychic.
The plot is a bit of a quagmire, introducing a new, memorable character in almost every scene and somehow connecting it all to Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello’s pot-fueled investigation of his ex-old lady’s new lover. The lover, prominent land-developer Mickey Wolfmann, seems to have a finger in every pie; his name comes up in connection with Black Panthers, Neo-Nazis, a consortium of dentists, a heroin cartel, and a New Age spiritual retreat.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a loveable, faithful version of Doc, sporting big Neil Young chops and hair he styles per occasion (whether it’s his “straight banker” wig or his failed attempt at an afro). But within this levity is a weight of sadness, felt from the first scene in which Doc’s ex-lover Shasta surprises him with a visit. That sadness can be ignored for a while (weed helps), but comes tumbling back inevitably as Doc witnesses the utopian 60s crumble around him, and the cold reality of the 70s rears its head.
The face of the new era is Doc’s nemesis, detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen, played to the hilt by Josh Brolin. Brolin knocks this role out of the park, with a performance that’s somehow hilarious and frightening in every scene. Phoenix and Brolin are great foils for each other, and the rest of the cast just sizzles. Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Katharine Waterston, Martin Short, Michael Kenneth Williams, Eric Roberts and Maya Rudolph fill out the panorama with fantastic nonsense.
This is the first major adaptation of a Pynchon book. As I see it, the main reason for trepidation in adapting his work (other than potentially pissing off a giant) is that Pynchon’s books are incredibly complex, have so many connections, and have such a distinct feel and atmosphere, that some of his paranoid complexity must get left behind on film.
The biggest disappointment I experienced with Inherent Vice is that Anderson seems to have left much of the book’s atmosphere to the wayside. Pynchon’s novel is rife with beach culture, surf music, urgent, stoned phone calls about late-night television, Manson-trial references, and midnight meals on Gordita Beach. But the movie has ignored most of this flavor to economically handle the sprawling, spider-webbed plot.
And even the plot underwent significant alterations on its way to the screen. Several great characters and significant storylines have been cleanly nixed, though a viewer unfamiliar with the book might not believe it considering the density of what remains.
Anderson’s directorial style is solid throughout, and his actors really sink their teeth in. Long, single-take scenes give the performers room to breath and explore, and Anderson kept me fully engaged even as I puzzled over the screenplay decisions. His soundtrack (opening perfectly with Can’s “Vitamin C”) is great, and conjures the feeling of the era.
I get the feeling that Anderson loves the novel so much he was afraid to make it his own. He goes to great lengths to capture the dialogue, even much of Pynchon’s prose, but I sense he was afraid to change anything too greatly, so his alterations are tentative, like he’s hemming a suit instead of making one from whole cloth.
I can’t help but feel a tinge of dissatisfaction from this adaptation. The movie was enjoyable throughout, but captures the novel in only broad strokes, and I’m not sure it stands as a fully realized separate piece. Run-time constraints trimmed many of the relationships from the book into just a few scenes that fail to capture the weight necessary to pull off their own dramatic purposes. Doc’s connection to undercover sax player Coy Harlingen comes to mind here, but most prominently abridged is Doc’s love/hate relationship with Bigfoot.
One of the most striking omissions from the novel is the glut of surf music that paints the background of Doc’s existence. In the book, he can hardly escape it. But outside of a brief visit to the house of notorious surf band The Boards (with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from The Growlers), surf music is completely ignored. If you ask me, the movie should have been drenched in surf. I’ll take the Can though.
Whether you’re a Pynchon fan or not, Inherent Vice is a really good movie. I’ll watch it again. Someone had to be the first to adapt Pynchon, and I’m glad it was Anderson. He picked the most adaptable of the author’s novels (by a long shot) and gave us something interesting, unique and engaging. It’s funny, well acted, beautifully shot, and there isn’t a movie like it.