By WADE SHEELER
When you enter the waters of a P.T. Anderson film, you have a set of preconceived notions. When you wade into the even murkier depths of Thomas Pynchon, you really better be aware of the currents, tides and possible undertow. Combining these two together is surely a minefield. Tread carefully, dear viewers and readers. Peligroso. Muy peligroso.
Pynchon, one of the country’s most celebrated novelists, will someday be the subject of some fascinating biographies. His works are dense, multi-layered tomes of paranoia, ambiguity and mathematics. They are no easy read. So I should preface this review by saying I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow, and it was a tough slog for me. Others live and breathe and die by his prose. Me, not so much.
Inherent Vice, considered by Pynchon lovers as “Pynchon-lite,” is anything but that for the non-seasoned fan. It’s also the first film adaptation of his work. He was courted very respectfully by director Anderson, and has given this adaptation his seal of approval. While most of Pynchon’s work is not genre specific, Inherent Vice thoroughly dives into pulp noir and draws from Pynchon’s experiences living in Manhattan Beach during the late 60s and 70s. And as a one-time resident, he’s come away with a cynicism and palpable distaste for his neighbors and the counter-culture movement that–depending on your zip code–you will relate to, or might possibly feel a tad pissy about.
In an attempt to synopsize as simply as possible, onetime LAPD detective (Joaquin Phoenix), now burn-out P.I. “Doc” Sportello (named ‘Doc’ because he runs his business out of a medical clinic) is approached by his former girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Watson), needing help to foil a scheme she has been pulled into against her wishes. Her current affair is with local real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). His wife and his wife’s lover are plotting to have Wolfmann committed to an asylum in order to swoop in and abscond with his sizable assets. Simultaneously, Doc meets with Hope Harlingen, ex-PCP junkie and apparent widow of Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) a session musician who has disappeared. Doc’s investigation leads him to a barren housing development currently being used solely for a mobile home whorehouse. Doc is knocked unconscious and awakens next to a body he is framed for murdering by his ex-partner, Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who knows the charges are trumped up, but doesn’t like what Doc has turned into, a “Hippie” (a term used incessantly as the worst disparaging name you could call anyone) and a pothead. With feathers ruffled and more than a little irritated at being hassled by friends, ex-lovers and the “Man,” but continually working in a drugged out, fugue-state, Doc is motivated to dig deeper, and soon realizes all his investigations have a commonality. After finding Harlingen (Wilson) he is lead to goods importer and money laundering corporation Golden Fang, run by a wealthy, cocaine crazy dentist (Martin Short) that fronts an “Est’-like cult that also happens to be holding said real estate mogul Wolfmann under drug induced captivity.
Throughout his investigation, Doc’s adventures take him to Topanga Canyon orgies, cult “groove-ins,” foggy harbors, LAPD headquarters where he may-or-may not be beaten by the cops for his appearance, and back rooms where he is chained and tortured and forced to ingest PCP. All the while he tokes away and may or may not be actually onto “something.” It’s (somewhat) clear from the start that Doc’s experiences may not even be happening; these could just be the trips and delusions of a highly medicated mind.
But these are just the surface plottings of a much deeper, much more incoherent diatribe by Pynchon and Anderson on corruption, bureaucracy, fascism and Manson paranoia. If this summary makes your head spin, it’s only the beginning. It’s a frustrating and thoroughly pretentious screed and will offer up the usual film school following of giddily gleeful fan boys looking to feel superior and detached from the material. If that’s your trip, man, then have at it.
And while I seem to be working myself into a lather over the intentional obtrusiveness of the material, my biggest issue is this is all a retread. Inherent Vice is The Big Lebowski, just written and produced by an alternate indie darling. The Raymond Chandler riffs are not just arbitrary, but intentional. The film itself is a mash-up of Lebowski, Chinatown and Altman’s The Long Goodbye; all of which are superior. Without having read the source material, I can lay you odds Pynchon himself was inspired by the Coen brothers film, since his book wasn’t published until 2009.
So for lovers of The Big Lebowski, you will find moments, and scenes and dialogue to embrace, all the while knowing it’s a pale comparison. For instance, people keep rousting and hassling Doc, there’s even a break-in to his apartment that feels so similar to Lebowski we’re waiting for him to cry out, “Hey, not on the rug, man!” He’s knocked unconscious, hassled by the police, struggles between serious investigation and a desire to be mellow like Lebowski and his search for the perfect White Russian.
Lebowski’s story teller was Sam Elliott’s cowboy, a fictional narrator who has two significant interactions with the protagonist. Doc has Sortilège, played by Joanna Newsom, who may or may not be one of Doc’s ex-girlfriends, and may or may not even exist. She tells the story, shares flashbacks with Doc and Shasta, (even looks like Shasta’s doppelgänger) does ride alongs with Doc, giving context to what he’s doing and why. Sometimes her voice-over is so similar to Shasta’s that we’re never sure who is actually telling the story; both characters tend to transition from conversation to allegorical and philosophical prattling that you’re never quite sure. And Anderson probably could care less whether you know who it is or not, and that detached cynicism about the audience is yet another frustration.
As dense and multilayered and laborious as The Big Lebowski’s plot and Chandler’s stories are, they always made sense and paid off. Pynchon and Anderson don’t necessarily want it to make sense. They are digging for the existential, theoretical, philosophical and spiritual higher ground. But to pull this off means an immense understanding of the text and a method of delivery that is tight and on-point. For Anderson, there are cracks in the carefully installed veneer that reveal a not-so-assured guiding hand.
For instance, the supporting players are a veritable Hollywood who’s-who; Anderson’s wife Maya Rudolph plays a secretary; Benecio Del Toro is a Private Investigator of maritime crimes; Martin Short is the cocaine addicted dentist; all of them seem game and up for the roles; however Reese Witherspoon as a Deputy DA, serves purely as Doc’s late-night booty call, and shows up as a day-player with seemingly no idea who she is or what film she’s appearing in. This ends up exposing more of the artifice than it should. The rest of the supporting players seem to be able to hold their own with the complex material and cameos even though, they themselves, may not know what they’re doing or why. It’s ultimately the director at fault, as he doesn’t seem inclined to let his cast know what he’s doing, and thus, the more disadvantaged of the troupe reveal their incomprehension of the text.
The script was adapted by Anderson himself, and while Pynchon may be pleased with the outcome, halfway through it feels as if the writer-director is treading water and making his characters “monologue” in hopes they can cobble some sense together, Tonally, we pivot too often between graphic violence and seriousness and moments of looniness for affective purpose. Incoherence and the director’s signature long takes seem to aid in adding to Anderson’s bag of style choices for style’s sake.
This is still not to say that Inherent Vice is not without its moments of pleasure. Anderson’s presentation of L.A., its beach communities, its vast, sprawling valley and upscale Beverly Hills’ real estate are well conceived and sharply designed (for someone who grew up here, I can attest to its painful authenticity). Anderson’s longtime music collaborator Johnny Greenwood again does an excellent job with a score that is both meditative and mercurial. Joaquin Phoenix, as always, is a gurgling, bubbling volcano, ready to explode and endlessly fascinating to watch. His blue eyes attempting to cut through the dense foliage of his facial hair as well as the muck of the plot, give you something to grab hold of when the going gets toughest. Josh Brolin, as well, seems to relish the tenuous line of sanity his character barely can navigate. The actor does “fascist crazy” probably better than anyone today. And for those interested enough, Katherine Waterston is a vision of unparalleled beauty.
But at the end of the day, for those who come away feeling a little “Emperor’s New Clothes”-ish about the whole affair, they will be more than frustrated with the longer than necessary 148 minute run-time spent in trying to decipher this riddle. The Big Lebowski demanded more than one viewing to gain a firm understanding of the proceedings; but it was arguably time well spent. To really get what Pynchon and Anderson are dishing out will also take multiple screenings. In the end, though, is it really worth the trouble?
Inherent Vice is currently in limited release for Oscar eligibility, but opens in nationwide on January 9th. For Your Consideration is a new feature that rounds-up and reviews late year entries that will probably hold some Oscar contention.