Inherent Vice: The Lovable Film and Incomprehensible Page

People look forward to whatever Paul Thomas Anderson does with eager anticipation. The man is immensely talented and everything he does warrants attention and praise. I looked forward to his 2014 film Inherent Vice with my own anticipation. I discovered both PTA and the author of the book the film was based on, Thomas Pynchon, in college. As with any pretentious stoner, I loved any excuse to praise obscure or critically acclaimed material. Anderson had a muted yet colorful style, Pynchon had a style that was omnipresent in his work (to put it kindly). In retrospect, I put the bong down and still found a lot to love about both these creators. I still love the book and still love the film.

Did regular people like it? Not really. For a thousand reasons, but I think the biggest one is expectation. Not just because of the names attached to this thing, but the sort of film they saw. Inherent Vice is a noir film based in the early seventies, during the decline of the flower power movement. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Larry “Doc” Sportello as he tries to uncover a giant conspiracy involving the disappearance of his old flame.

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Del Toro actually makes the character of Sauncho less eccentric, if you can believe that.

People didn’t like it because it felt low in stakes and confusing in the plot. This is completely fair, but also not a problem of the film. You could say that it’s a vice inherent to the story. Heh. To explain:

Pynchon’s style is widely regarded as dense and near inaccessible. Stories are hard to follow but they’re built to be enjoyed in the moment, not as a whole. Let me give you an example in his work The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), recommended as a perfect entry level into his work. Keep in mind this is the introductory paragraph:

“ONE summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million collars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. Oedipa stood in the living room, stared at by the greenish dead eye of the TV tube, spoke the name of God, tried to feel as drunk as possible. But this did not work. She thought of a hotel room in Mazatlan whose door had just been slammed, it seemed forever, waking up two hundred birds down in the lobby; a sunrise over the library slope at Cornell University that nobody out on it had seen because the slope faces west; a dry, disconsolate tune from the fourth movement of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra; a whitewashed bust of Jay Gould that Pierce kept over the bed on a shelf so narrow for it she’d always had the hovering fear it would someday topple on them. Was that how he’d died, she wondered, among dreams, crushed by the only ikon in the house? That only made her laugh, out loud and helpless: You’re so sick, Oedipa, she told herself, or the room, which knew.”

If this paragraph was a movie, people would’ve walked out after “executrix”. This paragraph is overwhelming to say the least, but it’s not trying to be. It expresses the main character’s personality, and more importantly, prepares the reader for how the book is going to read. The paragraphs don’t get easier folks. There’s lengthy diatribes and digressions into every little thing that feels like a possible detail the reader would like to explore. It would almost feel like a stream of consciousness if it wasn’t so well researched. Sentences, paragraphs, and pages are dedicated to setups, explorations, and punchlines. You’re completely forgiven if you miss a punchline, because there’s another one in the next sentence. You’re forgiven if you miss the plot, because that’s often the point. When the sentences are all added up you still understand the major themes, characters, and any moment that made you burst out laughing. Whatever sticks with you is what’s important.

As an Adaptation

Why Inherent Vice? Why Pynchon? Inherent Vice is probably the most accessible Pynchon book as of this writing (and probably ever, the guy’s like ninety.) Lot 49 was written many decades ago, and its theme that excused its incoherence was paranoia. Here, the drugs are the excuse for it. The mystery is also put through more of a noir lens than ever in his previous work. Detective Mysteries lend well to Pynchon’s style because it makes the grand plot threads feel intentional. Doc being an actual detective feels like he’s lost in something big contrasts with someone meandering through a conspiracy. Doc is also incompetent, sleeps through major events, and is high for most of it, but he never feels particularly unreliable morally. He means what he says and always tries to do the right thing. This is a major component of noir, founded on the type of dime store pulp detectives Raymond Chandler would write like Philip Marlowe. The world around our hero is corrupt to the core, but our hero is the guiding light in a world of seedy madness. The seeds this time are in nuggets of weed. Pynchon deliberately modeled much of the actual plot after Chandler novels as well. Pynchon’s sub-plots included multiple references such as a mysterious counterfeit money operation with fake president heads like The Long Goodbye and used genre staples such as mysterious women and secret names that people think is one thing but might totally be another. Anderson would remove most of this stuff.

The famed Pynchon digressions are also more pop-centric than earlier works. Explorations in the book are stoner centric, mentioning hip artists like Robert Crumb, particular strains of weed, the history of rock and roll, and explorations into Looney Tunes and Donald Duck shorts. These are way more digestible to a modern audience than, I don’t know, the rocket science and WWII politics of Gravity’s Rainbow or the dives into history of Mason Dixon or the cultural diversity and ambitions of Against the Day. Inherent Vice is also short, and probably the easiest of his stories to portray in film and resolve without people wanting their money back.

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Doc usually has a lot of unusual conversations, but this is the first time he’s met a talking car.

The moment is really where PTA and Pynchon belong with each other. PTA makes a great composition as a whole, but our cultural memory of him is rooted in scenes and performances. There Will Be Blood (2007), the Master (2012)Magnolia (1999) and Boogie Nights (1997) all have a depth to the characters provided in each frame, that the audience feels like they have full permission to let their own humanity imprint and run with them. In Pynchon’s prose running with the characters might as well be the style.

So how did Anderson adapt the novel? He took a relaxed approach. He rightfully abandoned the complexity, but also abandoned context. To put the two side by side, Anderson decided to try to give the audience something to latch onto by making it more sentimental and romantic. The relationship between Doc and Shasta has way more focus in the film and thematically makes it way more personal. Anderson threw out Pynchon’s digressions and sub plots for the sake of time, then sought to have the audience care about Doc through us relating to his emotions. Anderson completely retooled the appeal of Pynchon’s work in fear that Pynchon wouldn’t be adaptable. He instead replaced it with physical comedy (I recall a throwaway line in the novel being a major joke on the screen where Josh Brolin’s character slurps on a frozen banana), compelling performances, and Doc’s emotional relationship to old love Shasta Hepworth.

Yet, I don’t mind the differences. I think that’s because the changes weren’t cynical. If a movie producer wanted to make these changes, it would’ve been clear and insulting to the audience. Anderson genuinely loves the material and is just exploring avenues for any audience to connect with, not just the incredibly niche Pynchon fans. He keeps what’s important where it counts: the same colorful characters are littered throughout, almost entirely faithful save for some pretty drastic changes in the screen time. Some entire sections of the book are given in narration and dialogue. Joanna Newsom has a pretty good Pynchon voice.

The faithfulness of the adaptation is surprising given Anderson’s drastic departure from the source material in There Will Be Blood. This might be why many felt that Inherent Vice was weak; There Will Be Blood added complexity to a simpler book where Inherent Vice had to remove complexity. I gotta make clear, I mean complexity in a thematic sense. A lot of stuff is hinted at in the film through character dynamics, but major concepts are not addressed that are in the book. The big stuff I’ll address later, but there’s a lot of little stuff that is unavoidably missed. Like there’s a good bit of words dedicated to the racist housing practices of California, and it creates a deeper understanding of the characters it deals with and more importantly: the setting. The setting was a fictional location in California, called Gordita Beach. It had a fictional, detailed history that felt fleshed out. In the film, Gordita Beach didn’t seem to have its own distinct identity. I would say this is a problem prevalent in the film, and I’m not sure if it’s a product of Anderson’s style here (being focused on characters over the locations) or just the general feeling of the film creating a lack of awareness to locations (meaning: if you’re lost, how well can you remember where you are?) There’s at least one or two notable exceptions to this, such as the mental hospital, and that’s done a lot because of the contrast between Doc’s color and the sterile whiteness inside. Those stick out.

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You’re correct. This is a Last Supper reference.

But PTA also diverts from the source material in exploring themes. Again, Anderson abandons the broad context of the “dying hippie movement” and instead explores the emotional heart of Doc’s core relationships. Bigfoot, Shasta, and Coy’s family don’t provide the same big picture they used to but still help Doc as a character shine. Music is always greatly used in Anderson’s films, but it’s never allowed to be as thematically essential as it did in the book. In the book, music is a prime example of the death of peace and love, contrasting the love of music in the yesteryear to a corporate sale of the message and brand in the current day. The fictional band explored in the book- The Boards– start as a family and by the time of the book’s events are a rotating door of faces to sell records. Doc’s interactions with Coy and the band simultaneously show Doc’s heart and give yet another perspective on the cultural era. What remained in the Anderson adaptation was Coy’s search to reunite with his family. Heartwarming, but entirely different in approach.

California, Bigfoot, and The Coen Brothers

Let’s contrast Inherent Vice the film to The Big Lebowski (1998), inevitable comparisons occurred even when the book was released. I mean, I love me some Dude. I’m not comparing it solely because they’re similar and they yield to better insights, but also because I think audience goers wanted another The Big Lebowski. It’s that expectation of Humphrey Bogart being in a Cheech and Chong movie that is the central appeal of the story. Still, I think people dismissing this film because of its similarities missed out on something really special.

Pound for pound, Doc is a better character than the Dude. The Dude is very petty and passive, and is hard to love as a person. You appreciate The Dude’s zen and stoicism man, he just wants his rug back, you know? It doesn’t really inform the viewer in the same way Doc does. The Dude’s setting is the nineties, in a sort of morally vacant California where wheels and tumbleweeds still spin. The Dude’s company of characters include Vietnam vets, pornstars, and nihilists. These characters explore themes such as masculinity and identity, but they don’t explore the Dude. The Dude is static in a mythical sense.

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Do not mistake the nicely paced trailers and this shot for something exciting.

In contrast, the setting of Inherent Vice is early seventies California. Post Manson murders, the hippie movement is the equivalent to a heroin junkie fading away – which is a metaphor Pynchon eagerly utilizes and is maintained as one of the few subplots Anderson kept. Doc is the one character that believed full stop in the hippie ideals, even if no one else did. His free spirit and love of doing the right thing is explored and expanded with each character dynamic. Throughout the twentieth century the California police departments had some of the most corrupt police forces ever, represented by Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). Bigfoot is a direct contrast to Doc, a squeaky clean criminal bashing fascist that sells apartment units and turns hippies into informers is the complete opposite of our Doc with the heart of gold. Bigfoot also regularly commits unethical practices that strain his relationship with Doc. I’d rather have Thanos in my apartment than Bigfoot, yet it’s not just a clear dichotomy. Doc and Bigfoot also see something in each other, and the book struggles to identify that with grace and this is something Anderson actually does in a scene totally original to the film in Bigfoot’s “bust down the door and eat Doc’s weed” scene. This is where film really excels, and Brolin shows an incredible emotional depth inside his character’s rigidity and Phoenix shows Doc’s open and forgiving soul through his eyes. Anderson’s visual flair in the film is in the close-up. He knows the actors are what is selling this film. To bring back the contrast, The Dude wore sunglasses a lot and the only scene I really remember his eyes being a thing was when he was dancing to Kenny Rogers in a dream.

Anderson is able to maintain character dynamics and depth in a way I don’t think the Coens ever really try to. For a film that leaves audiences confused, it’s very streamlined from the novel. Dead ends and non sequiturs from the novel are hinted at but never followed through on – to Anderson’s credit. The Coens don’t try to mine for depth, their technique is more naked – especially in their more comical works. Not saying they’re not great, but the Coens tried to make people laugh more than anything. That might have been the reason why people didn’t like Inherent Vice.

Should I Give This Movie Another Chance?

Yes. Go into it wanting a good time and stop worrying so much. Maybe smoke a doobie.

It’s a reality that the film was always going to be confusing, so Anderson tried his best and settled on making characters and relationships the core appeal the audience can easily grasp and appreciate. He made delivery and physicality the main source of humor, but did not sacrifice any sort of dignity for the sake of it. I think this will be the only Pynchon adaptation for a long, long time. It’s now one of my favorite Anderson films, but I think it’s hard for people to love without additional perspective. That will forever be the film’s biggest flaw.

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