It’s easy to see why Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice attracted the great auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, even if it is generally accepted that the novels of Pynchon are “unadaptable” as far as the cinematic language is concerned. If we take a step back to the early work of “PTA,” as he is colloquially known, the lifeblood of Los Angeles runs deep throughout his films. Much like Boogie Nights or Magnolia, this new film is a Los Angeles picture through and through. The year is 1970 and drug culture runs rampant throughout LA. Our hero, Doc Sportello, played with a relaxed charm and a hint of mania by Joaquin Phoenix, is an investigator searching for the current boyfriend of his ex-girlfriend, and to explain any more of the plot, as it were, would mean that there would have to be one.
I do not believe that narrative and story are the be-all and end-all for determining the success of a film. A film can be many things other than just a “story machine,” and to say that Inherent Vice has no narrative and use that as a pejorative in this sense is indicative of this film in particular and not how I feel about films across the board. There’s no doubt that Paul Thomas Anderson is a wildly talented filmmaker, and his craft is as strong as ever. LA in the 1970s looks sumptuous and genuine, with terrific film photography by Robert Elswit. Anderson coaxes uniformly charming and wry performances out of his cast, with Josh Brolin in particular shining as Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. Yet as the film progresses throughout its nearly two and a half hours, it becomes increasingly dense to the point of impenetrability. As more and more drugs are consumed and Doc Sportello continues his investigation, time and character and purpose lose all meaning. The film drifts, floats, lingers. A haze begins to settle over the proceedings that, at least for me, had the opposite effect of what I think PTA was intending.
It is Mr. Anderson’s clear admiration for Pynchon’s source novel that has perhaps got the best of him, and that word “unadaptable” lingers in the back of my mind like a flashing beacon. Sequences and characters that were irreverent on the page fizzle in a film that seems overstuffed with ideas and a lack of cohesion. Sportello himself gets adrift on tangents, and the drugs cause him to lose his place and forget details, and the film tries to recreate this effect for the audience. I have enjoyed many drug trips throughout cinema history, yet Inherent Vice lost me in its opaqueness. It felt turgid and absent, a piece grasping for breath. The philosophical musings of Pynchon as seen through the lens of Paul Thomas Anderson are too hazy to connect to. Paranoia sets in, conspiracies are afoot, Martin Short does cocaine, Owen Wilson is at his Owen Wilsoniest (and it’s delightful!), and I just couldn’t dig it, man.
Under no circumstances would I call Inherent Vice a bad film. It’s too weird and fascinating and filled with too many delightful performances, and in its own way it succeeds as a tableau of a time and a place and a culture that is a relic of Los Angeles’ past. Paul Thomas Anderson is the filmmaker that made me fall in love with cinema as an art form when I first saw Magnolia in 1999, and his work continues to be nothing less than fascinating. He inspires me, and thus my reaction to this film is one that I rarely allow myself to have: disappointment. PTA works on his own wavelength, and for the first time in his career that wavelength didn’t jibe with mine. Perhaps this film is an acquired taste, though, and based purely on the photography and the performances, I would still recommend it. Just caution yourself, and make sure you’re ready to pay strict attention to the ridiculous non-narrative that this film is.