Just DocWith Paul Thomas Anderson’s auteur standing complementing Thomas Pynchon’s literary eminence and pop culture savvy, Inherent Vice (2014) promises to be a cinephile’s dream. Set against the backdrop of the Nixon Presidency and Ronald Reagan’s term as Governor of California in 1970, the film pivots on a moment in time when the counterculture curdled. While central character Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a hippie private investigator, lives a laidback existence in a beachside suburb, repeated allusions to the Manson Family place us in ominously post-Altamont territory.

Inherent Vice wastes no time acknowledging its generic underpinnings. Both film and novel open with Doc’s old flame, flower child Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), emerging from out of the past. She wants Doc’s help in foiling a plot to fleece her real estate mogul boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann, who Doc deduces is a “Gentleman of the straightworld persuasion.”  Although rooted in noir and the hardboiled tradition, Inherent Vice is anything but a purist work. This simple investigative quest springboards Doc into encounters with a cavalcade of characters including strung out hippies, Aryan Brotherhood bikers, Black Panthers-like revolutionaries, morose LAPD cops, FBI agents, drugged up dentists and double agent saxophonists. A drug cartel (or tax avoidance structure?) going by the juicy handle Golden Fang, a right wing cabal called Vigilant California and a brothel proudly advertising its “pussy eaters’ special” fill out this crazy portrait of America writ large.

Anderson’s sprawling canvass is directly linked to its source, with much of Pynchon’s dialogue adopted verbatim. One major change by Anderson is to create a narrator by expanding a minor character from the novel, Sortilège (Joanna Newsom). This development creates a space for Anderson to depart from the trademark noir male narration, confounding expectations of a cynical, world-weary Philip Marlowe or Jeff Bailey type. Anderson has described how he took the character of Sortilège and “made her a bit bigger and gave her narration and made her more of a sidekick. Kind of like Tinkerbell.” (1)

This is the first film adaptation of a Pynchon novel, a writer long considered unadaptable, directed by a self-confessed fan boy. Anderson has previously worked from his own original scripts, with the exception of There Will be Blood (2007), a loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil!. All his films are set in the American west, with the majority in his native Los Angeles (including Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and There Will be Blood). Inherent Vice belongs with this latter group, occurring in a time and place familiar to Anderson, who was born in 1970. While Boogie Nights (1997) superficially covers similar territory, its focus on the nascent porn industry dissected a distinct sub-culture. Punch-Drunk Love, the Anderson film to which Inherent Vice has been compared on the basis of its humour, is more inwardly focussed and more jaggedly unconventional, as unmoored from its chosen genre of romantic comedy as a studio film could be.

So where does Inherent Vice fit within the Paul Thomas Anderson oeuvre? Like Magnolia (1999), it is a film set in LA with a huge ensemble cast seasoned with stars (Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Eric Roberts and Martin Short). Like Boogie Nights, Inherent Vice invokes the spaciness of 1970s LA, but moves beyond its predecessor in evoking the political paranoia and discord of this period, and unlike Punch-Drunk Love it clearly draws on an established literary and cinematic genealogy. A line is easily drawn through its hardboiled antecedents, from the pulp fiction of Chandler, Cain and Hammett, through the great film noir. Robert Altman, explicitly a touchstone for Anderson in Magnolia, provides further inspiration for this adaptation in his contemporary re-working of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1973). Anderson’s first feature Hard Eight (1996), often classified as neo-noir, refers to this same pedigree in a more attenuated way.

Doc and Sauncho (Benicio del Toro)

Doc and Sauncho (Benicio del Toro)

For first time viewers, the feeling of being lost in the narrative, of swags of information being rapidly spewed out in dialogue and an at times bewildering parade of characters and shadowy entities, may be disconcerting. This type of dizzying narrative is a generic gumshoe staple stretching back to Howard Hawks’ notoriously incomprehensible The Big Sleep (1946). Pynchon knowingly mined this tradition and Anderson dutifully follows suit. This impression is not simply genre motivated, but also reflects the hazy early 1970s story world. Confusion wrought by social and political upheaval is compounded by the abundance of mind-altering substances on display: cannabis, booze, heroin, cocaine and, in one memorable scene, laughing gas. Anderson gives the audience privileged access to Doc’s periodically tenuous grasp on reality, showing him scribbling and erasing half baked queries and theories in his ubiquitous note pad as he undertakes his investigations.

Doc’s drifting, dazed persona feeds on an obvious reference point for Pynchon acknowledged by Anderson (2), the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998). Like The Dude, Doc is frequently nonplussed by the characters he encounters, none more so than LAPD cop “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), another ‘straightworld’ denizen who serves variously as Doc’s nemesis and kindred spirit. Bigfoot’s eating habits are played for laughs throughout, as he consumes chocolate bananas and Doc’s stash at different points, and repeatedly shouts “Moto Panacaku” in a Japanese diner. Martin Short’s insane cameo as drug addled dentist Dr Rudy Blatnoyd and reformed junkie Hope Harlingen’s (Jena Malone) fake choppers form another offbeat motif.

Such exchanges connect the personal and the political in Inherent Vice. The narration speculates on the loop-like links between American free enterprise, the counterculture, law enforcement, organised crime and the health system, each feeding the other: “If the Golden Fang can get customers strung out, why not run around and sell them a program to help kick? Get them coming and going – twice as much revenue? As long as American life was something to be escaped from, the cartel could always be sure of a bottomless pool of new customers.” The personal part of this exchange is emphasised in the concept of “inherent vice” itself, that is, the tendency of a physical object to deteriorate from within, as opposed to through the work of external forces (the narration reels off examples such as glass shattering, eggs breaking and chocolate melting). These examples operate as metaphors for the seeds or destruction within us all, the all too human self-sabotaging impulse operating at a level beyond any superstructure or system.

Back to the socio-political side of the ledger, there are echoes throughout Inherent Vice of Thom Anderson’s documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), which focused on the disjunct between the LA presented on the silver screen and the messier, dirtier reality. At one point Sortilège narrates the tawdry history of Los Angeles land use and usurpation: “Mexican families bounced out of Chavez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium, American Indians swept out of Bunker Hill for the Music Centre, Tariq’s neighbourhood bulldozed aside for channel view estates.” Whether it be Doc’s modest beachside shack, the Golden Fang HQ, a Topanga Canyon mansion or a psych hospital with a “Straight is Hip” banner prominently draped over the entrance, property is a proxy for status, power and control intimately linked to the political and social currents running through the city.(3) In looking at the battles over land and water in Los Angeles, Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) entered similar territory.

Ouija

Inherent Vice is a departure in tone from Anderson’s most recent and perhaps most acclaimed films, There Will be Blood and The Master (2012). These are self-consciously sombre, serious works, straining for affect and relying on towering central performances by Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix.  Phoenix’s portrayal of returned serviceman Freddie Quell in The Master, reflecting the film’s mid-twentieth century setting, is split between buttoned down public appearances, given expression through his stiff body language, and intermittent, explosively violent moments. This coiled spring quality hints at the emotion bubbling beneath the surface.

No such physical straightjacket constrains the character of Doc, with Anderson repeatedly positioning Phoenix slumping, recumbent, almost prone. However, a certain withheld aspect does perversely connect this relaxed stoner to Quell. Doc may be better socially and sexually connected, but his quizzical expression and foggy consciousness, sometimes evoked in slow motion sequences, belie a void, a sense of loss at the heart of the film. The soundtrack is pitch perfect in representing this feeling at points, particularly the use of Can’s Vitamin C early on and Neil Young’s Journey Through the Past.

Much of the commentary on Inherent Vice focuses on the film’s shaggy dog quality, punctuated as it is by multiple oddball cameos and narrative digressions. Yet the whimsical, lightweight tone cannot disguise the fact that this is a work of ambition in a different vein. The film shifts register regularly, evoking loss and regret. We gradually become aware of the doleful Bigfoot’s back-story involving the death of his partner, which seems to have precipitated a sense of listlessness and existential crisis. Plaintive moments pepper the film, such as the flashback to when Doc and Shasta run through the rain trying to score weed. Even this nostalgia-tinted memory of a sensual moment of connection in a flagging relationship is wrapped up in an in-joke: animated by an urgent desire for weed, it is the only moment in the film that Doc runs anywhere. This golden hued reflection is also subverted by an immediate cut to the present as Doc retraces his steps and finds that Golden Fang HQ has now been constructed on an empty block that just previously featured prominently in flashback. A crazy post-modern tribute to the molar, the Golden Fang building is a patently CGI created structure, as jolting as the special effects in Marnie (1964).

Such sequences stand out because even though Anderson cannot resist occasional flourishes, his style here is relatively subdued, with plenty of dialogue heavy interior two shots. Against this background, one extended interior single take stands out starkly. The scene takes place after Shasta returns to Doc’s place late in the film. In a virtual monologue while naked, Shasta refers to her degrading treatment at the hands of Wolfmann, taunting Doc that maybe he has a thing for “one of those Manson chicks … submissive, brainwashed” before a rushed sexual encounter. All the film’s allusions to power structures, dominant ideologies and seismic social change are engaged in this one crucial scene, which re-frames everything that has come before.

A final reference to a beautiful image heaving with ambiguity that also sums up the way Inherent Vice riffs on the different levels of the personal and the political. A schooner, which is associated with both the Golden Fang heroin cartel and the missing Shasta, is conjured or seen by Doc on two very different occasions and reinforced by a recurring motif of model ships. Its mirage-like quality recalled for me the lighthouse ship scene in The Age of Innocence (1993), another great adaptation, where Newland spots both Ellen and a ship racing towards a lighthouse on the horizon, and promises himself that he will break societal constraints to be with her if she turns around before the ship passes the lighthouse.

This dreamy yearning for a closeness that is impossible haunts both these films. In very different ways, each adaptation is sure footed enough to give cinematic expression to the complexity of the original authors’ portrait of extraordinary systems and ordinary lives. Anderson’s Inherent Vice has been criticised for its shifts in tone and incoherent narrative, but given its provenance, these ‘faults’ are in-built. I see the film as a brave, heartfelt and largely successful stab at adapting the ‘unadaptable’. Like Scorsese in his prime, Anderson remains a rare example of a studio director committed to pushing boundaries and exploring new frontiers.

Endnotes

1. Paul Thomas Anderson, “Paul Thomas Anderson on Why he Turned a Thomas Pynchon Novel into a Movie”, Vice 9 January 2015, http://www.vice.com/read/inherent-vice-was-the-thomas-pynchon-book-i-could-make-into-a-movie.

2. Mark Kermode, “Paul Thomas Anderson: ‘Inherent Vice is like a sweet, dripping aching for the past”, The Guardian 28 December 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/dec/28/paul-thomas-anderson-intereview-inherent-vice-mark-kermode.

3. The Manson Family lived Topanga Canyon and Sortilège’s narration reminds us that the psychiatric hospital is a private institution of the type that prospered as Ronald Reagan cut back on public funding for mental health.