IT IS OBVIOUS BY NOW that Paul Thomas Anderson isn’t making individual movies so much as building an oeuvre block by blockthe sturdiest, most resilient body of work by a big-time American director since Stanley Kubrick died and Martin Scorsese ran out of steam.
Big, ambitious, and American are the operative words. Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999) were sprawling ensemble pieces that challenged Scorsese and Robert Altman on their own turf; in their concern with self-invented American Übermenschen and up-front eccentricity, There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012) engaged Orson Welles. Anderson’s smaller films, Hard Eight (1996) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002), pondered more marginal if equally echt-American types, and his latest movie, Inherent Vice, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as Thomas Pynchon’s hippie private eye Doc Sportello, falls into this category. A panoramic actor fest, it is also an extremely credible adaptation of the closest thing to an easy read by the writer whom some consider America’s greatest living novelist.
Structurally, Inherent Vice is pure School of Chandler, with Doc suckered into the plot by an old girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), whose problems with her sugar daddy, scumbag developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), illuminate a classically Los Angeles real-estate scam . . . for starters. Behind it all is an “Indo-Chinese” drug cartel, a stand-in for the Vietnam War and ultimately a front for whatever cosmic antiplan you likeDoc Sportello being a sort of acidhead Don Quixote complete with intermittent sidekick, maritime lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro).
Anderson’s movie, like Pynchon’s novel, is specifically set in early 1970, the Season of the Witch (and of the movie Patton), the year of the Cambodian Invasion and the Manson trial, which marked the moment the war truly came home. It’s a period pieceindeed, it’s a period piece squared, inasmuch as the whole notion of a stoned Big Sleep is itself a doper’s dream from the late ’60s (partially fulfilled in 1973 with Altman’s The Long Goodbye). Down these mean streets into the smoke rings of your mind . . . Anderson’s movie is a sort of meta–period piecean ironic equivalent of the Technicolor wide-screen Hollywood superproductions that enshrined classic or best-selling novels: Moby Dick, say, or Lust for Life (both 1956). The Master was one of these too, with the additional meta-irony of seeming to be an adaptation while lacking a literary source; Inherent Vice’s visual sources are such that it might have been shot in ultrapsychedelicolor by William Eggleston.
Lavishly fastidious, the movie lacks the novel’s exuberant mise-en-scène. The furnishings in Doc’s pad (an “authentic English Pub Dartboard up on the wagon wheel,” a “whorehouse swag lamp with the purple psychedelic bulb with the vibrating filament,” a “collection of model hot rods made entirely of Coors cans,” a “beach volleyball autographed by Wilt Chamberlain in Day-Glo felt marker,” and an undifferentiated velvet painting) might give Jeff Koons issues. Still, however difficult to visualize on-screen, the book is heavy with dialogue, thus allowing Anderson, who wrote the adaptation, to keep much of Pynchon’s verbal slapstick and, through the device of a narrator, even something of his voice.
As much ringmaster as director, Anderson manages to keep the movie from getting bogged down in proliferating characters and plot, although one might argue in favor of being lost in the marijuana-perfumed miasma. Mainly, the movie is a series of one-on-ones between Phoenix, looking like Abbie Hoffman with muttonchops, and a mad variety of ’60s archetypesBlack militants, Aryan Nations goons, teenage runaways, Feds, a sunshine-gal ex-junkie (Jena Malone), a fortysomething swinger (Martin Short), a police informant (Owen Wilson), a hippie-hating cop (Josh Brolin), and hippie chicks of all persuasions, as well as the weird ringer of a superstraight pot-smoking deputy DA (Reese Witherspoon).
Thanks to this overabundance of character acting, Anderson’s Inherent Vice has a cartoon density. The filmmaker has hewed out a recognizable simulacrum of Pynchon’s impacted, manic world and approximated the writer’s facetious yet erudite tone. Could anyone have done more? The Coen brothers’ most endearing movie, The Big Lebowski (1998), predates Pynchon’s novel by a decade, and who’s to say that their humorously cannabinated noir wasn’t an inspiration for his? Still, the brothers’ temptation to trump Pynchon’s compulsive shtick with their own particular smarm would have likely proved irresistible. A movie fully inhabiting its own naïveté and confusion, Richard Kelly’s sprawling Southland Tales (2006) may be more successfully Pynchonesque than Inherent Vice, but it is also closer to self-parody.
Impressively faithful, Anderson’s screenplay begins to diverge from the novel in certain details midway through and ends on a somewhat different, somewhat farcical note. Pynchon’s novel is a period piece cubed. His parody private eye yarn isn’t just a ’60s fantasy that mock-romanticizes life in the ’60s, it’s also a meditation on the end of the ’60s. That “this little parenthesis of light” (as Pynchon puts it) happened at all is the book’s real mysterythough, distanced as Anderson’s movie is, it’s not one he’s able to address.
Whereas the author prefaced his novel with the Mai ’68 slogan “Under the paving-stones, the beach!,” the filmmaker places the epigram at his movie’s conclusionless an oracular sign of the times than a punch line. It’s Anderson’s inherent vice that he reads the text but doesn’t read through it.
Inherent Vice, which made its US debut at the New York Film Festival this fall and is currently in limited release, opens nationally on January 9.
J. Hoberman is a frequent contributor to Artforum.