'Inherent Vice': Film Review

The first Thomas Pynchon novel to hit the big screen gets uneven handling by Paul Thomas Anderson.

Paul Thomas Anderson brings Thomas Pynchon's work to the big screen, with mixed results

What might have seemed poised as a primo 1970s counterculture companion piece to Boogie Nights emerges as something less than that in Inherent Vice. The first filmmaker okayed to adapt a Thomas Pynchon novel for the screen, Paul Thomas Anderson has made a zig-zagging, effortfully comic mystery yarn that sends a weed- and beach-loving private dick on a dazed journey through the mash of corrupt cops, druggies, new-age cultists, hookers, Nazi bikers, Black Power toughs, real estate tycoons, Nixonian politicos and free love chicks that was L.A. 44 years ago. But only fitfully does the film manage the kind of liftoff as that achieved by Pynchon's often riotous 2009 novel and, most disappointingly, it offers a only a pale and narrow physical re-creation of such a vibrant place and time.

While Vice contains more mainstream elements than Anderson's last film, The Master, this Warner Bros. release still faces long odds in making significant inroads with the general public.

Set in 1970, the year Anderson was born, Pynchon's book is a Day-Glo doper variation on Raymond Chandler, cut with James Ellroy and Robert Towne, about a stoned white knight who can navigate the city's power structure from top to bottom and deal with all the freaks because he's one of them. The themes of civic corruption and big-money influence and everyone having their price are unchanged since Philip Marlowe took them on several generations back, but providing this updated tale with its special pungency is the immediacy of lost innocence; what was beautiful and groovy and far out up to 1969 all went south in the wake of the Manson murders, on top of which you had Richard Nixon as Southern California's fresh gift to the nation.

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Through the miasma of dope smoke and spiritual malaise shuffles Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who at his beachfront pad in Gordita Beach is surprised to behold Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), a beautiful butterfly from his past who shows up to ask his professional help in tracking down her secret lover, big-shot land developer Mickey Wolfmann, who's vanished. Where we might expect to hear voiceover narration from Doc himself to help clarify the action and vast cast of characters, instead there is rather baffling commentary from a secondary female character who imparts confidential information and insight; even by the end of the film, it's impossible to figure how she's privy to it.

Wolfmann's disappearance is merely the trip-wire for all sorts of other, mostly disreputable characters to bisect Doc's orbit, not a few of them with some sort of connection to Wolfmann. When he heads out to Channel View Estates, Wolfmann's latest eyesore housing development in the South Bay, and pops into a sex parlor there looking for one of the owner's bodyguards, an Aryan Brotherhood biker, Doc is knocked out, only to wake up next to the dead biker and be accused of murder by buzz-cut cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), an old nemesis who walks and talks like he just stepped off the set of a lewd version of Dragnet (he actually does extra work on Adam-12).

Doc wriggles out of this absurdity but becomes pressed by both Bigfoot and the FBI to help locate Wolfmann and counterculture figures he's suspected of knowing, among them Coy Harlington (Owen Wilson), a musician friend who is thought to have died but rematerializes in the weirdest places. Looming over everything is a mysterious schooner, the Golden Fang, the provenance and cargo of which is much speculated about.

Adapting a book for the second time in his career (after There Will Be Blood), Anderson has contrived to cook Pynchon's sprawling yarn down to its dramatic essence, even if some wonderful interludes, such as a side trip to Vegas, are sorely missed. Still, viewers coming to this material cold will find it pretty daunting to connect all the dots. This means that what really counts here, as in a head-scratching classic like The Big Sleep, is the sizzle of individual scenes, the atmosphere, the innuendo, the electricity between the characters and actors.

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In this regard, Inherent Vice is intermittently successful but only up to a point. The Nabokovian names Pynchon bestowed upon many of his characters suggest the broadly comic context he's created for them: Dr. Tubeside, Sauncho Smilax, Petunia Leeway, Puck Beaverton, Dr. Threeply and Adrian Prussia, just for starters. Brolin's hard-boiled and hardcore Bigfoot is perhaps the most prominent of these bizarre creations; intimidating one moment and provocatively sucking on a chocolate-covered banana the next, the man is clearly deranged, although not without great cunning. Far broader are Martin Short's Dr. Blatnoyd, a drug-happy horndog of the first order, and many of the guests who go to hide or dry out at a loony new-age retreat. Most of the women serve to demonstrate that free spirits can easily become lost souls in this anything-goes world.

As the audience's would-be tour guide through this haphazardly mapped landscape, Doc Sportello is something of a wayward knight, a clown prince, a solitary jouster for personal justice who, though he's often in a fog, somehow manages to see straight. What would have helped better establish and sustain the film's humorous sensibility is an actor with a comic side, a self-deprecating performer who can win over the audience both as an amusing straight-man (Doc is more often a reactor than a doer) and an endearing fool; a young Dustin Hoffman comes to mind as an ideal Doc.

Who else could have played the part today is unclear, but Phoenix, for all his skill playing more serious roles in the likes of Walk the Line, Her and The Master, doesn't possess this sort of levity or mutability of spirit. He's a strong enough performer to center the film and hold it together, but he lacks the elastic face (especially beneath his big mutton chops) and bemused eyes that might have made the character more accessible and amusing.

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As Doc's unlikely part-time squeeze, a bee-hived deputy D.A., Phoenix's Walk the Line co-star Reese Witherspoon plays it primly and disapprovingly efficient until she lets her hair down and gets stoned one night at his place. Her slithery Shasta proves elusive through much of the story, but eventually Waterston assumes centerstage, in a compellingly strange way, in a long scene with Doc toward the end. Brolin and Wilson are both strong as very odd characters indeed, while Benicio Del Toro plays a relative straightman who provides Doc, and the audience, with needed information about the Gold Fang and other matters.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment about the film is the relative absence of Los Angeles as a major physical character. The film feels dominated by medium and tight closeups. There are establishing shots of places like the housing development and police headquarters but, whether for budgetary or artistic reasons, the film makes no real attempt to do what the book did, which was to convey with acute sensitivity and insight the feel of different parts of the city — the beach community where Doc lives, the hippie magnet of the Sunset Strip, the musicians' lair of Topanga, the deteriorating downtown of officialdom, and other outlying areas. In his first few films, L.A. native Anderson made a point of evoking the city in knowing and specific ways, but here, with such a ripe opportunity to make a great L.A. movie, it's almost as if he's deliberately spurned the invitation.

Also gone is Doc's film buff side; the novel is full of references to old movies, specifically to films noir and anything with John Garfield, but this may have been too obvious a note to hit onscreen.

As always with Anderson, the soundtrack is of great interest, first of all for its relative lack of predictable oldies-but-goodies from the period. The often intriguing and offbeat song interpolations gradually give way to increasing use of long stretches of original dramatic music by Anderson stalwart Jonny Greenwood, which proves quite effective toward the end.

Production: JoAnne Sellar Productions, Ghoulardi Film Company
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Joanne Newsom, Jordan Christian Hearn, Hong Chau, Jeannie Berlin, Maya Rudolph, Michael K. Williams, Martin Short, Sasha Pieterse, Martin Donovan, Eric Roberts, Serena Scott Thomas, Yvette Yates, Andrew Simpson, Jefferson Mays, Keith Jardine, Peter McRobbie, Sam Jaeger, Timothy Simons, Samantha Lemole, Madison Leisle, Martin Dew
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon
Producers: JoAnne Sellar, Daniel Lupi, Paul Thomas Anderson
Executive producers: Scott Rudin, Adam Somner
Director of photography: Robert Elswit
Production designer: David Crank
Costume designer: Mark Bridges
Editor: Leslie Jones
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Casting: Cassandra Kulukundis

R rating, 148 minutes