Here’s a great matchup of movie director and book. Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice features the reclusive postmodern giant at his wackiest and most engaging. It’s a terrific subject for Paul Thomas Anderson, the celestially gifted filmmaker whose wacky side seemed to have taken a holiday in The Master and There Will Be Blood. This week brings his movie version of Inherent Vice, and while it’s no masterpiece, it is a nice pot-laced treat.
The story is set in 1970 in the fictional seaside town of Gordita Beach, Calif., where eternally stoned private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Carrying on an affair with married land developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), she’s worried that his wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her boyfriend (Andrew Simpson) are plotting some harm for Mickey. Shortly thereafter, Shasta and Mickey disappear, and Doc is sucked into a plot involving hookers, Black Panthers, neo-Nazis, the FBI, and his thuggish, racist, frozen banana-fellating LAPD nemesis Lt. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin).
Don’t be intimidated if you can’t follow the plot. You’re not meant to, any more than you’re meant to comprehend The Big Lebowski, which this movie strongly resembles. Pynchon fans will easily recognize the paranoid conspiracies on top of conspiracies here — Doc is warned early on to beware the Golden Fang, which might be a boat, a drug cartel, a New Age spiritual retreat, or an extralegal tax shelter for dentists. The movie features narration by Doc’s possibly imaginary platonic friend Sortilège (played by the musician Joanna Newsom) that’s less interested in clarifying things than in voicing Doc’s inner thoughts: “Oh, no! Bigfoot, you motherfucker!”
The murky impenetrability is cut with insane comedy reflected in the typically Pynchonesque character names here: Sauncho Smilax, Japonica Fenway, Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, Puck Beaverton, Petunia Leeway, and Leonard J. Loosemeat. Even a scene when Bigfoot beats the crap out of Doc is played for broad slapstick, and when Doc gets into a shootout with a bad guy, he stops firing to call out, “Did I hit you?” The plot is often just an excuse for Doc to have weird encounters with weirder people played by the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Michael Kenneth Williams, Martin Donovan, Martin Short, Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s real-life wife), and the porn star Belladonna, billed under her given name of Michelle Sinclair. They’re all upstaged by Hong Chau as a prostitute who at first comes off like a total Asian stereotype only to reveal unsuspected layers.
If you’re not one of Anderson’s or Pynchon’s legions of fans, you might find 148 minutes of this to be a bit much. However, both Doc’s hopeless pining for Shasta and his efforts to reunite a detoxed wife (Jena Malone) with her on-the-lam musician husband (Owen Wilson) carry enough emotional weight to keep Inherent Vice from being just an exercise in random weirdness.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, based on Thomas Pynchon’s novel. Rated R.