Inherent Vice would be a landmark in movie history even if it weren’t good. More than just an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel—indeed the first official Pynchon adaptation, period—the film engages with the author’s literature on the whole, attempting a filmic analogue to his virtuosic prose. Arguably the James Joyce of postmodern American fiction, Pynchon created a new kind of epic novel with V. (1963) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), combining literary references high and low, probing considerations of postwar history, goofy counterculture humor (frequently about drugs and sex), and flights of formal experimentation. His books can be overwhelming on a first read, as they feature dozens (sometimes even hundreds) of characters and interweave multiple conspiracy plots, some of which touch on real historic events. How could one make a movie that conveys the depth of Pynchon’s literature, to say nothing of his polyphonous language?
Rather than tackle one of Pynchon’s major works, Paul Thomas Anderson wisely chose the author’s least ambitious, took the parts that worked for him, then developed a Pynchonian epic of his own. The film delivers a generous amount of the book’s dialogue and visual detail—so much, in fact, that it conjures a vision of the past as complete as any Pynchon imagined. You don’t just watch Inherent Vice; you wander around it, as you do with Pynchon’s densest books. The movie demands repeat viewings, not only because Anderson and his extraordinary creative team—cinematographer Robert Elswit, production designer David Crank, costumer designer Mark Bridges, set decorator Amy Wells, and composer Jonny Greenwood—cram the film with so many expressive details, but because the results are so complex that they can be read multiple ways. I’ve seen the movie three times now, and I find that moments I laughed at on one viewing seem poignant or even upsetting on another, and vice versa.
Like the novel, the opening scenes of Anderson’s film promise an offbeat if somewhat generic detective yarn. It’s Los Angeles, 1970. Pothead private investigator Doc Sportello, a holdout of 60s counterculture, is visited by ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth, who believes there’s a conspiracy afoot to bankrupt Mickey Wolfmann, the wealthy real estate mogul she’s been dating. Soon after Doc takes the case, one of Mickey’s neo-Nazi bodyguards dies under mysterious circumstances, and then both Shasta and Mickey disappear. Meanwhile, an old acquaintance of Doc’s, Hope Harlingen, hires him to find out what happened to her saxophonist husband, Coy, who allegedly died of a heroin overdose but is rumored to still be alive. While investigating both mysteries, Doc hears rumors about a shadowy outfit called the Golden Fang, which might be an international drug cartel, a fascistic political organization, a secret branch of the FBI, or maybe just a dentists’ association.
There are more crazy developments and character names where those came from; even after multiple viewings, you might have trouble keeping track of them all. That’s OK—the hero himself is stoned the whole time. Regardless, Vice proceeds fluidly from the ridiculous to the hideous to the majestic; you won’t find it hard to be carried along by the filmmaking alone. Often the movie gracefully decelerates so one can savor the nuances of character and setting. As in There Will Be Blood and The Master, Anderson and his team construct past environments that feel authentically lived in—the ways the characters decorate their homes or style their hair reflect not just past cultural trends, but how they were interpreted in different areas or by different people. These loving details, rarely commented upon or highlighted in the shots, combine to make the past seem distinctly different from (and more mysterious than) the present. The filmmakers also invite us to explore the images by staging gags in the margins or the background of the frames. (Anderson claims to have gotten the idea from the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedies Airplane! and Top Secret!, a rather Pynchonian reclamation of lowbrow pop culture.)
If Vice seems at first like a less impressive act of reconstruction than Anderson’s last two films, maybe that’s because the performances are so attention grabbing. Anderson hasn’t seemed this in love with actors since Boogie Nights; almost everyone who appears onscreen gets the chance to be distinctive and funny. Bridges’s costumes make the characters look a bit like they stepped out of a Warner Bros. cartoon (in fact many of the designs are modeled after Pynchon’s descriptions), and each player fits right into his or her outfit. There’s a uniform exaggeratedness to the performances, which stand in fascinating contrast to the hyperrealist settings. But though Pynchon’s characters might look and talk like they came from cartoons, most of them harbor secret longings or regrets. As Doc, Joaquin Phoenix finds the right balance of innocence and Groucho Marx-like knowingness, and his versatile work goes a long way in establishing the movie’s slippery tone. Josh Brolin is just as good as Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, the right-wing cop who antagonizes Doc the way a high school jock picks on the dorky kid in class. His performance in particular gains in depth from one viewing to the next; there’s a melancholy quality to it that isn’t immediately apparent.
The cast succeeds in making Pynchon’s mannered language sound natural, and Anderson often films the conversations in long takes that preserve the flow of the writing. Pynchon’s dialogue is often very funny, but the actors don’t deliver it as comedy; the jokes blend into the surroundings, adding to the movie’s polyphony. When Vice introduces some tragic element—like Hope’s history of heroin addiction—the sudden turn feels more unsettling for not being jarring. In both the book and the film, 1970 LA seems haunted by the fallout of 60s radicalism, with everyone bracing themselves for the worst. There are frequent references to Charles Manson and the rise of hard drugs (the Vietnam war, rarely mentioned, is a major structuring absence). Doc’s hippie friends all look washed-out, while most of the squares he meets—cops, dentists, the archetypal suburban family that appears near the end—seem eerily triumphant. On the periphery of the plot is a far-right citizens’ group named Vigilant California, which is gaining in political power and may or may not be connected to the Golden Fang. Pynchon’s incessant jokes come to seem like buffers, keeping us from getting too close to the sobering history lessons—about the failure of the counterculture on the one hand and the ruthless victory of antisubversive movements on the other. (Spoilers follow.)
In searching for Mickey, Shasta, and Coy, Doc discovers that all three committed serious acts of betrayal. Coy faked his death to become an agent provocateur for antisubversive groups, which promised to help him clean up and make money for his wife and daughter. After leaving the hippie community, Shasta not only became Mickey’s mistress but allowed him to prostitute her to his rich friends. Coy and Shasta’s confessions to Doc make for two of the film’s most impressive sequences. Anderson presents these scenes in long, intricately choreographed takes wherein the camera slowly draws us into the conversation, the wacky settings giving way to naked expressions of guilt and fear. These shots recall some of Pynchon’s Faulknerian run-on sentences, which move between disparate emotional states and even points of view. During Doc’s reunion with Shasta, we’re invited to read her betrayal in political and personal terms, each perspective enhancing the other. It’s not a major sequence in the book, but Anderson makes it the heart of the film, grounding the historical rumination in a stronger sense of loss.
What was Mickey’s betrayal? By briefly allying with the counterculture, he betrayed the status quo. Doc gradually learns that Mickey got so seduced by the hippies’ lifestyle of drugs and free love that he came to believe in their antiestablishment values. Mickey planned to burn through his fortune by developing a large desert community where people could live for free. It would be called—in a typically Pynchonian detail—Arrepentimiento, a Spanish expression that means “sorry about that.” Apparently this upset the Golden Fang, which oversees the distribution of wealth and power all over the world, so they had someone kidnap Mickey and brought him to the sanatorium they run. When Doc finds him there, Mickey admits, “I’m waking up from a bad hippie dream . . . that I gave away all my money,” effectively declaring allegiance to establishment values.
Every Pynchon novel features some vast international conspiracy, though we’re never meant to take the paranoia too seriously (Golden Fang? Arrepentimiento?). In his literature, paranoia is just one more narrative tradition to draw upon, along with detective novels, cartoons, history, and pornography. Pynchon’s work celebrates the novelistic form by showing how much it can contain; likewise, Anderson’s movie celebrates the cinematic form by showing how it can contain Pynchon. But the author also understands that great fiction carries serious responsibilities—it ought to capture a time, place, and way of living; it ought to introduce new ways of seeing the world. Pynchon’s sympathy for various countercultures throws into relief his books’ pessimistic view of modern history, in which forces of wealth and power subvert and decimate promising alternatives to capitalist society, time and time again. That Anderson and his team managed to deliver this worldview, pretty much unadulterated, in a Hollywood studio production is just one of their accomplishments.