When a celebrated director helms the first-ever adaptation of a book by a notoriously cerebral author, the natural impulse is to overanalyze. This is the blessing and the curse facing Inherent Vice, the rare stoner comedy that will receive more critical attention than it should. The movie’s based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, the notoriously camera-shy author considered a paradigmatic postmodernist. It’s directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the rare Hollywood creative who can produce enigmatic films of epic lengths within the studio system, the last of which, The Master, showed his unaccommodating art at its peak. Considering all this, the stakes were always going to be too high for this film.
But at its most basic level, Inherent Vice, in book and film forms, isn't asking for probing inquiry: It's about a pothead bumbling around L.A. There’s a quest, of sorts, resembling the concept of a '40s noir: In 1970, private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by his tall, tanned California ex-flame Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston, a femme fatale in an orange high-necked minidress). She's now dating a real estate mogul named Michael Wolfmann, but there's trouble in paradise: Wolfmann’s wife and her boyfriend want Fay’s help in committing Wolfmann to a mental institution to make off with his money. Before long, Fay’s disappeared, Doc’s set up for the murder of the tycoon’s bodyguard, and he starts looking into Wolfmann, aimlessly because he’s stoned.
If the investigation sounds like an odyssey, it comes together by coincidence. A Black Panther asks Doc to locate Wolfmann's bodyguard (who happens to be involved in the Aryan Brotherhood). A heroin-addict-turned-drug-counselor's request that he determine if her late husband is actually dead turns up intelligence interest at the federal level, and an old acquaintance of Wolfmann's, Jade (Hong Chau, supremely funny). The new characters and odd coincidences point him to a larger conspiracy involving a mysterious entity known as the Golden Fang, which could alternately be a luxury schooner, an Indo-Chinese drug ring, or a syndicate of dentists.
It's taken 50 years for a work by Thomas Pynchon to come to the big screen because his narratives are impossible to follow, by design perhaps. Pynchon's novels contain dozens of characters, wordy, indirect language, loose ends, and perhaps most obviously difficult for studios with a deadline, incredible attention to detail. (Pynchon’s Inherent Vice made reference to an encyclopedia of California ’70s miscellany including: chocolate-covered bananas, pooka-shell necklaces, liquid eyeliner, shag-carpeted walls, whorehouse menus, and ’fros.)
This is—unfortunately for the success of the movie as a mystery but really great for its value as comedy—a very faithful adaptation. The movie’s at its best when it’s visually riffing on the sudden appearances of dissonant characters and things in Pynchon’s prose. These motifs show up in the movie version like bad pennies, conjuring the sense of paranoia Doc’s feeling as he goes down the rabbit hole of finding Shasta surrounded in a haze of smoke. It's hard not to go down with him. When a client who's supposed to be in hiding shows up protesting a Nixon speech on television, is that a sign? An indication of a larger conspiracy at play? Who’s in charge here? Even for the viewer who hasn't lived through the ’70s and experienced Nixon in office, the era’s anxiety over the higher powers are expertly induced.
And it’s really, really tempting to spend the movie trying to make sense of it all. There are a lot of good analyses already, and I’m partial to the overarching opinion so far that this movie, like so many others by Anderson, depicts the end of an era: Here the shift is from ’60s counterculture to ’70s popular culture, in others the end of the porn auteur, the death of his father (see Marc Maron’s recent WTF podcast for more details), and the turn of the century.
But Inherent Vice could just as equally be “about” the history of California, fear of authority, the rise of capitalism, postmodernism, The Movies, and/or an insurance policy (“inherent vice” refers to a clause in policies that excludes coverage when a loss is caused by a quality in the property itself). At one point during the film I wrote in my notebook, GOLDEN FANG = AMERICA. It seemed plausible at the time. In the cold light of day it looked more like a conclusion come to whilst on strong substances.
Which is the point, of course. Inherent Vice inherently rewards only half-serious analysis: Anything more is just as much a trap as is assuming Pynchon was being serious about the postage-stamp conspiracy in The Crying of Lot 49. Anderson's latest is defiantly unresonant, a movie about the decline of marijuana culture a year after it became legal in some states. It's funny and light in the box-office season when most everything else is serious and has gravity. (How refreshing to have a psychedelic druggie mystery in the mix.) Semiotics nerds, who so love Pynchon, might call the effort a fitting moment when a familiar signifier (Paul Thomas Anderson) doesn't necessarily line up with an agreed-upon signified (deep masterpiece) and creates a feeling of postmodern unease. I call it Anderson finally enjoying the clout he’s reaped.
The actors are having a good time, too. Joaquin Phoenix pulls off the blazed look of alarm masterfully, even if he mumbles his lines on occasion (Pynchon enunciates). As Lt. Det. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, Brolin’s even better: His LAPD officer and wannabe-TV actor is given the best scene in the entire film, just as iconic as “I drink your milkshake!” from There Will Be Blood. Cat (Brolin) and mouse (Phoenix) run into a host of Hollywood character-actor champions along the way, from the great Jena Malone to Owen Wilson to Michael Kenneth Williams. They eat a lot of pizza, smoke a lot of pot, shoot some dope. They make reference to the Red Scare, the Black List, and James Wong Howe. If the adaptation’s a little too faithful to sustain a cinematically tight story, there’s still a lot to admire in the sheer, uninhibited folly of the whole thing, the gall to get groovy while the Oscar-watchers are on high alert.