With Inherent Vice, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, The Master) does what no one else has ever managed: He adapted a Thomas Pynchon novel into a film. Published in 2009, the book sports the closest thing to a linear plot Pynchon has ever cooked up, following a private investigator nicknamed Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) as he is spurred by his beach-bunny ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) to look into the disappearance of her married lover, a tycoon (Eric Roberts) whose wife (Serena Scott Thomas) is having an affair of her own.
Set in 1970 in a California as overbaked as the pothead Doc, Inherent Vice emphasizes the humor in Pynchon’s novel while preserving its density and relevancy. This is Anderson’s first full-blown comedy, even though it has a body count and a serious subtext about corrupt real estate dealings (shades of Chinatown’s backdrop about crooked goings-on inside Los Angeles’ water and power department). Like Jake Gittes, Doc is being manipulated without realizing it, and his detective work brings him into contact with black militants, white supremacists, drug addicts, strange dentists, an Asian sex ring and a brutish jarhead detective, Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), with a fondness for frozen chocolate-covered bananas.
Anderson has lifted the bulk of the dialogue in Inherent Vice from Pynchon, and he even throws in a narrator (Joanna Newsom) to recite the book’s omniscient prose, to help viewers keep up with the labyrinthian plot. Pynchon’s fans will be delighted, despite the nips and tucks Anderson makes to the source material. But anyone who hasn’t read the novel will be as baffled and confused as Doc is 30 minutes into the film. To the uninitiated, Inherent Vice will feel like Incoherent Vice, a movie that seems to be missing a few reels even though it runs two-and-a-half hours. The further Doc digs into this rabbit hole of a playful, sunlit noir, the more tangled things get.
Anderson keeps his images simple, relying primarily on straightforward close-ups and medium shots, presumably to avoid style from interfering with the story. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is an obvious influence here, but so is Up in Smoke. Imagine if Elliott Gould had teamed up with Cheech & Chong, and you’ll have a sense of what Anderson is up to.
Unlike Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice doesn’t accentuate its period setting, aside from mutton sideburns and the occasional slang word. Anderson wants to connect the film’s central theme to the present-day gentrification of poor neighborhoods and the exploitation of the lower classes by greedy businessmen with all the right connections. But for those not interested in subtext, the movie gets by on its goofy vibe, with Phoenix at his most likeable as the zonked-out hero and Brolin as the ferocious cop who emanates violence and menace but also moonlights as an actor in TV commercials sporting an afro wig.
For those willing to inhale, Inherent Vice gives off a pleasurable contact high. By the time Owen Wilson shows up as the missing boyfriend of a junkie (Jena Malone) with fake teeth, you start to wonder if someone has spiked your soda. This is as close as anyone will ever get to capturing Pynchon on film — I doubt anyone else will try again — but it’s a dubious achievement. Although it’s not as hermetic and impenetrable as The Master, Inherent Vice still comes off as a giant inside joke, evidence of Anderson’s undeniable talent and a further retreat into his own head, oblivious to whether we can follow.
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Katherine Waterston, Serena Scott Thomas, Jena Malone, Martin Short, Joanna Newsom.
Writer-director: Paul Thomas Anderson. Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 148 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, drug use, brief violence, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.