(Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, United States, 2014)
Given the current critical discussion surrounding P.T. Anderson’s latest Inherent Vice, I may very well be unqualified to comment on it. Nearly every piece I’ve read has given Pynchon’s novel – Anderson’s source material here – just as much, if not more, space than the director’s film adaptation. And, since I haven’t read a single work of Pynchon’s, I suppose I have very little to say with regards to the conversation between page and screen. But, why is it this way? Are we not able to dissect or engage Anderson’s film without Pynchon’s imposing presence looming over the dialogue? A large number of films are indeed adaptations of previously written material, but we often expend very few words on the source in favor of what the filmmakers have done with it. (And, here I’m of course excluding series like Harry Potter or Twilight that seek to simply recreate on screen as much plot and characterization from the books.)
But, this has happened before, and recently. Joel and Ethan Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men comes to mind. Their film was surely more celebrated than McCarthy’s novel, but the two are inextricably tied in all critical discussion. This may be due to how faithful a filmmaker remains to his or her source material. The Coen brothers famously lifted dialogue word for word from the pages of McCarthy’s book. And, here (so I’ve read) Anderson is remarkably faithful to Pynchon’s apparently “unadaptable” work. In contrast, very few bring up Upton Sinclair when discussing Anderson’s earlier film There Will Be Blood – though it was a reworking of his novel Oil! – likely because it marks a very loose adaptation of that story. Or, in the case of Inherent Vice, this may be because of Pynchon’s largely singular and important role in contemporary American literature. There are precious few authors who hold such a position – Roth, DeLillo, McCarthy – that maybe adaptations of their work are destined to carry this burden whether audiences have read the books or not. So be it. From this writer’s perspective, Anderson’s film is no less because of it.
This brings us to Inherent Vice (the film, not the book – ironically now I’ve gone and dedicated far too many words to Pynchon myself). The idiosyncratic director’s seventh film finds him casting off the heaviness and grand-scale reach of his two previous features in favor of lighter fare (subsequently worrying those who’ve endowed Anderson with the burdensome title of savior of American auteurism). Inherent Vice is first and foremost a comedy, and therefore immediately distanced from his fifth and sixth films (though I wager there’s a bit more humor bubbling under the surface of both There Will Be Blood and The Master than one might think, but that’s another article). For those fearing he’s derailed his post-TWBB momentum igniting a renaissance of American cinema, rest assured Inherent Vice is still very much a work of Anderson’s. It may not be one of his best films, but it’s an achievement to be sure, one that also suggests the man doesn’t take himself as seriously as adoring fans with high expectations do.
Inherent Vice follows the exploits of one doped up gumshoe Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he wades through the drug-fueled criminal underworld of early 1970s Los Angeles. In the film’s opening scene, former flame Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) visits him in his beachside shack begging for help. She recounts a rather convoluted tale that suggests her current lover Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and his millions may be in peril. Her story reeks of unsubstantiated paranoia, but Doc agrees to help nonetheless likely do to some residual feelings he harbors for her. He begins poking around and soon finds there’s some basis for Shasta’s claims when Wolfmann and Shasta mysteriously go missing. The plot becomes hilariously overcomplicated as Anderson entangles Doc in a mess of drugs and crime introducing us to a seemingly unending cast of increasingly outsized and impossibly named characters. We meet Doc’s part-time lover and junior DA Penny (Reese Witherspoon) relegating their secret relationship to strictly after-hours loving, his wishy-washy attorney Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), a jittery prostitute named Jade (Hong Chau), a couple of recovering heroin addicts Coy and Hope Harlington (Owen Wilson and Jena Malone), and a dirty dentist named Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short) to name a few. All the while, Doc’s nemesis and straight-laced double Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) runs the same case from a different angle, crossing paths with Doc throughout. It’s essentially Anderson’s take on film noir – one imbued with a welcome dose of humor.
With this parade of caricatures and outlandish scenarios, Anderson creates a comically chaotic collage of early ‘70s malaise; a portrait of the counterculture backlash crafted from the vantage point of hindsight. Anderson’s film – as I’m sure Pynchon’s novel did – skewers just about every alternative cultural signifier in turn – hippies, cults, drug overuse, crooked cops, dirty corporate money, public paranoia, new age phoniness, fringe movements – painting the era as one big hangover from the ‘60s. By comparison, the mumbling stoner at the film’s center comes across as the story’s sanest character. In the end, he acknowledges the limits of his skill set in the face of such layered corruption, abandons his dead-end investigation, and resolves to focus his efforts on one situation he can affect. In an uncharacteristically humanizing act for Anderson (of his most recent work at least), Doc trades a monetary reward for the promise of absolving former snitch Coy Harlington so he can return to his wife and daughter.
This ending for a likable loser like Doc may seem unlike Anderson, but Inherent Vice still doesn’t seem like the work of an artist who’s turning a new page. Following The Master – Anderson’s first film not plagued with oftentimes unfair and unhelpful references to his influences – Inherent Vice finds the director honing his craft and continuing to find his own cinematic voice. With a sizable and certainly impressive body of work behind him, it’s also perhaps his most self-reflexive film. It boasts the crisp, yet subdued aesthetic of The Master, juggles an ensemble cast à la Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and offers the (at times) subtle humor of Punk-Drunk Love. The film is least like There Will Be Blood – still Anderson’s opus, which may account for its cooler reception with audiences. Although, one could make a case for Anderson’s continued exploration of the male psyche through dualities in characterization – Daniel Plainview/Eli Sunday, Lancaster Dodd/Freddie Quell, and now Doc/Bigfoot. Their final interaction reveals as much; we’re to see them as two sides of the same coin.
And, as Anderson hasn’t earned the controversial title of America’s best working director for nothing, there are plenty of directorial flourishes throughout Inherent Vice to point to the man’s rightfully lauded talents as a filmmaker. Despite the absence of any jaw-dropping spectacles of flaming oil derricks or mesmerizing images of the expansive rolling sea, his latest is impeccably shot by Robert Elswit allowing Anderson to exercise his meticulous attention to detail and camera movement. He favors the long take throughout, and the camera pushes in toward its subjects so slowly one might barely notice he’s effectively drawing his viewers deeper into Doc’s web of loose ends and unsolved mysteries. Anderson also continues his trend of extracting superb performances from his actors. Katherine Waterston is impressive as the film’s stand-in for a femme fatale, and Josh Brolin is particularly hilarious and wholly convincing as the hard-nosed Bigfoot. But, it’s ultimately Phoenix’s show as he embodies this hippie-cum-detective with ease. With this, in addition to his career high as Freddie Quell in The Master and a lauded performance in this past year’s The Immigrant, he may very well be American cinema’s greatest leading man of the moment. If Inherent Vice, as a tour of Anderson’s past accomplishments, is also any indication of where he’s going, he might just be one of the most important voices in American cinema as well.