There’s unadaptable and then, somewhere further down the line, there’s Pynchon. Out of all the author’s novels, Inherent Vice is definitely the most conventional — it’s Chandler seen through a prism of weed smoke and patchouli oil. It’s not that surprising that it would be made into a movie; rather, it’s not that surprising unless you’ve actually read it.
The book is a cacophonous, freewheeling detective novel that uses a seemingly endless amount of developing plot strands as texture. It starts as a whodunit and rapidly unravels into a rambunctious, unstructured whydoanything; it’s so markedly different from the usual three-act structure of any detective story that the film risked a 99 per cent chance of being as incomprehensible a mess as something like Alan Rudolph’s misbegotten adaptation of Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.
Thankfully, it fell into the hands of Paul Thomas Anderson, a man who is certainly no stranger to turning unwieldy ideas into genius. To say that Inherent Vice is unlike anything Anderson’s ever made would hardly be an exaggeration; to say that Inherent Vice is like anything I’ve ever seen wouldn’t.
The plot is nigh indecipherable, but here goes: Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a beach-dwelling stoner and private eye (in that order) who is visited by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston). Shasta’s in trouble, or at least she thinks she might be: she’s been sleeping with real-estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), but he’s disappeared, possibly due to a cabal of neo-Nazi bikers, or a weird new age cult, or the intervention of a Black Panther-like militant group… or maybe he just split. In the course of his investigation, Doc ends up framed for the murder of one of the aforementioned neo-Nazi bikers, hired by a former drug addict (Jena Malone) to find her supposedly dead husband (Owen Wilson), embroiled in a crime syndicate that may or may not be run by a sex-crazed, coked-out dentist (Martin Short) and terrorized by the semi-fascist, hippie-hating LAPD cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), discovering a vast conspiracy in the process… or maybe it’s a series of smaller conspiracies… or a series of unrelated coincidences…
Inherent Vice may be the only film where the descriptor “unfocused” actually seems like a compliment. Whereas most detective stories will introduce two or three plot strands that magically all relate by the end, Anderson spins his web recklessly, introducing character after character and subplot on top of subplot until the film takes on a mildly hallucinogenic air, a barrage of characters whose connections to the affair at hand seem tenuous at best. Some pop in to offer completely unnecessary exposition; others try to stick a spoke in Doc’s wheels for completely unclear reasons, only to never reappear in the film. It’s an incredible balancing act that Anderson performs here, managing to make a plot-heavy movie that’s never really about the plot.
This film is also a comedy, but never one that’s content to settle into a particular groove (a recurring trend, you’ll notice). Early reports pinned this as a cross between Airplane!, The Big Lebowski and Altman’s The Long Goodbye — all accurate to some level, but it still doesn’t tell the whole story. The film careens from juvenile slapstick to Pynchon’s verbal acrobatics (delivered by Joanna Newsom as Sortilège, the film’s narrator and possibly a figment of Sportello’s imagination) to one-off gags without really settling on a proper tone. I’m usually thrown off by inconsistent tone, but here Anderson hits some kind of symbiotic balance of inconsistency, turning the film’s intermittent jokes and melancholy into a tone of its own.
Inherent Vice is admittedly difficult to parse after just one viewing. It’s exhilarating, confounding, exciting and frustrating in equal measures. The closest experience I can relate it to isn’t even a film; it’s Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, a behemoth record that throws so many disparate elements at you, the initial reaction is to shut down entirely. Repeated listens uncover nuance, however, and yet each listen seems to hold fresh surprises. I can’t guarantee that Inherent Vice is the same as I’ve only seen it once, but my gut tells me yes (it would certainly be true of Anderson’s other films). If you’re reading this review to know if you should go see Inherent Vice, my answer is yes. You can’t rewatch a movie if you haven’t seen it at least once. ■
Inherent Vice opens in theatres today, Friday, Jan. 9. Watch the trailer here: