Taking Care of Nighttime Business
By Jeff Reichert
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, U.S., Warner Bros.
Doc Sportello has problems. For starters, heâ€™s broke from halfheartedly trying to maintain his long-running, low-earning P.I. practice; halfheartedly only because heâ€™s wholeheartedly maintaining a certain . . . looseness to his lifestyle in end-of-earth outer-L.A. enclave Gordita Beach, circa 1970. For seconds, his ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth, drops by his beachside shack one night spinning tall tales of real-estate moguls gone missing, maybe-possibly on purpose; Aryan Brotherhood bodyguard gangs; and more paranoiac fantasiesâ€”enough to seriously bug out a consciousness far more professionally stoned than Docâ€™s. Being maybe still a little smitten with the lovely Shasta, heâ€™s duty-bound to look into the matter, and promises to ask his new flame, A.D.A. Penny Kimball, for help, but the very next day is met in his office by a very aggrieved Black Panther affiliate named Tariq Khalil asking him to check into the disappearance of one Glen Charlock, met in the clink, now bodyguard for the aforementioned real estate mogul. Coincidence? Doc thinks not.
Doc would be correct, of course, and as the plot of Thomas Pynchonâ€™s potboiler pastiche Inherent Vice grinds into high gear, heâ€™ll run afoul of several alive-folks-thought-dead, mysterious cults, more mysterious cartels, crazy drugs, loaded guns, subversives, countersubversives, obscure nautical laws, a band of dentists gone bad, and, worst of all, he will witness firsthand the slow strangulation of a certain dream of free living at the hands of nefarious historical forces. (Some might call this last merely a hippie thing, but the yearning is far older and remains evergreen.) This is just for starters. Those familiar with the krazy kwilt patchworks of cultural detritus, bad jokes, worse songs, delusions, and passages of stunning observational lucidity and romanticism that are the novels of Thomas Pynchon will find all this familiar terrain. For those who know only the imposing reclusive reputation and the massive quantities of pages heâ€™s emitted through the years, the free-wheeling quality of Inherent Viceâ€™s plot will surprise. The end-to-end silliness of this work, Pynchonâ€™s second wackiest after his other stoner novel Vineland, remains its most commendable quality five years after its first publishing. Is Pynchon the funniest of our major big-book writers? If it's arguable whether he has a huge leg up on, say, Roth or DeLillo in overall mirth, heâ€™s still certainly the one Iâ€™d most trust to know his way around a whoopee cushion.
But wait, whatâ€™s that you say? Inherent Vice is now a major motion picture from Warner Bros. studios? How can this be? Many have argued Pynchon is unadaptableâ€”his books too long and complexly plotted, his characters too oddly named (see: Pig Bodine, Mucho Mass, Tyrone Slothrop, Zoyd Wheeler, Webb Traverse), his major themeâ€”the never wholly graspable entropic forces that define how moments of insurrection against establishment are slowly asphyxiatedâ€”kind of difficult to make visible. Also because of the (likely false) general sense of the Literary Industrial Complex as being somehow less corrupted and venal than the Hollywood studio system, it seemed that this preeminent chronicler of shadowy conglomerate machinations could only really function solo, planting word after word on the page. Yet, Paul Thomas Anderson has come along and made an honest-to-goodness movie starring the likes of Joaquin Phoenix (Doc), Benicio del Toro (Docâ€™s lawyer Sauncho Smilax), Josh Brolin (LAPD Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, Docâ€™s nemesis/double), Owen Wilson (saxophonist turned informant turned missing person Coy Harlingen), Reese Witherspoon (Penny), Martin Short (drug-addled dentist Rudy Blatnoyd) and ingĂ©nue show-stealer Katherine Waterston (the beguiling Shasta). Itâ€™s shot by Robert Elswit and features music from Jonny Greenwood, and certainly feels expensiveâ€”in short, this Inherent Vice is a production that required the full support of those titans of cultural conformity toward which Pynchonâ€™s novels have long cast a wearily jaundiced eye. Return of the repressed or just further proof of the mainstream culture systemâ€™s massively absorptive qualities? Does it matter? This is more observation than criticism.
Inherent Vice impresses, on the main, even if it inspires a sterile kind of admiration. This may have something to do with its success as adaptationâ€”it may be the most obvious choice among Pynchonâ€™s novels for silver-screen immortalization given that itâ€™s riffing so hard on one of cinemaâ€™s favorite genres (and those riffs are themselves on the original noir novels as refracted through half a century or so of films of the same), but this simpatico quality presents possibilities and pitfalls in equal order. More on this later. Itâ€™s probably the simplest of Pynchonâ€™s novels, which allows some of the writerâ€™s worst qualities to shine through. His byzantine, diffusing plots, simplistic characterizations (elevated mightily here by Anderson and his troupe), hysterical character names, and forced jokes might just play better on the page, yet theyâ€™re dutifully transcribed for the screen by a highly skilled amanuensis. Perhaps reading a book, where we can direct the pacing ourselves, affords us the ability to skip quickly past and forgive undesirable elements, while movie time determines how long we must linger. Itâ€™s a perplexing film, but itâ€™s never less than worthy of serious grappling. Yes, Virginia, Thomas Pynchon can be adapted for the screenâ€”the proof is there, all 148 minutes of it. But just because we can, should we?
The novel begins: â€śShe came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always had used to. Doc hadnâ€™t seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt.â€ť Andersonâ€™s script adaptation reproduces the lines faithfully, placing the words in the mouth of twee-harpist Joanna Newsom, who plays SortilĂ¨ge, in the book a real-life friend to Doc, here cleverly refashioned by Anderson into a kind of ephemeral, roving narrator presence that helps underscore Docâ€™s descent into some really serious shit. Newsomâ€™s childlike, scratchy voice runs throughout the film, giving audiences access to some of Pynchonâ€™s purplest prose, and the tactic does wonders. Where in the book trailer for Inherent Vice, Pynchon himself, sounding not a little bit unlike Jeff Bridgesâ€™s The Dude, rasps out the lines, creating a laconic macho vibe all too expected for a backward-looking early 20th-century riff on The Long Goodbye, Newsomâ€™s rueful voice, and the prose selections Anderson has assigned her, highlight the more winsome qualities of the text, capturing well that feeling of doors closing, all the lights going out, the forces of the massed, conformist day maybe just slowly winning out against those who live by wild night.
This smart adjustment begs for a second the question of what we should expect when one attempts to transmogrify literature to film. Setting aside things like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or the Nicholas Sparks canon as trying merely to reiterate as much plot event as possible in a moving image form, is the job of the adapter to be faithful to the original text? Improve upon it? Create a work that exists in a straining arm-lock with the source? Inherent Vice is shockingly faithful, both to Pynchonâ€™s convoluted plotting, which seems only slightly streamlined for the screen, and to the bookâ€™s overall grass-haze vibeâ€”thereâ€™s barely a scene free of dope, but youâ€™d feel the buzz it even if it werenâ€™t on-screen. It also unabashedly pulls loads of Pynchonâ€™s arch Chandler-by-way of-the-Three-Stooges patter, begging another question: Is it the classiest stoner comedy ever made? Possibly: itâ€™s certainly quite funnyâ€”not a given considering the heaviness of Andersonâ€™s There Will Be Blood and The Masterâ€”while at the same it does not circumvent the darkness and despair that lurk in the margins of all of Pynchonâ€™s books. Though, this being what it is, there are more than a few cheap laughs, too.
So stunningly faithful is the adaptation, and so chameleonic does the adapter prove to be, one might wonder for a moment where Anderson, one of the few acknowledged virtuosos in American cinema, actually is in all of this. Heâ€™s there, if youâ€™re looking. Heâ€™s in a red-hot music cueâ€”Canâ€™s fried â€śVitamin Câ€ť kicking in over the neon-lit title card (itself slamming onto a profile of Doc as he disappears into the Gordita night) and continuing to groove for seemingly far longer than the trackâ€™s three-minute runtime. Heâ€™s in some of the longest, most aggressively focused two-shots in all of American cinema, some of which push in so slowly that they seem ever stillâ€”yes, this is a feat (just ask Waterston, whose hypnotic, naked, single-take monologue late in the film goes beyond bravura in front of Andersonâ€™s patient camera). Heâ€™s in the expert tonal management of scenes that begin nonchalantly before exploding into manic slapstick or violence. Heâ€™s in the deft balancing of an unwieldy ensemble cast, his first since Magnolia. Anyone whoâ€™s seen The Master will recognize this as the work of the same filmmaker: Inherent Vice hews closer to that filmâ€™s cooler aesthetic blueprint than the more visceral kicks of There Will Be Blood or the flamboyant take on the same historical moment in Boogie Nights. For this fan of both artists, there mightâ€™ve been a bit more of Anderson, though. (Thinking back to The Master, perhaps Anderson here plays the bellicose Lancaster Dodd subsumed to Pynchonâ€™s ultimately more perplexing and powerful Freddie Quell.)
Anderson is nimble with the bookâ€™s play between the real and very quite possibly notâ€”even as the events become stranger, he mostly stays grounded, never leaving L.A. for the stratosphere. (Itâ€™s a kind of restrained gonzo that the stupidly tacky Southland Tales would surely envy). As Doc stumbles deeper into his investigation, he wonders if this all might not actually be happening (waking up after a beating only to find himself next to one very dead Glen Charlock with Bigfoot Bjornsen and a squadron of uniforms with arms drawn will tend to do that). And his occasional scrawls on notepads, made while interviewing a dizzying array of clients and witnesses, become increasingly less focused on the clues and connections heâ€™s making than they resemble the mental overflow of someone on a very bad trip. At one point he even furiously underscores: â€śIs This Real?â€ť Itâ€™s easy to wonder the same: as Inherent Vice accumulates evidence, youâ€™ll run across the ghost ship Golden Fang, massive quantities of blow, shady real estate dealings, an outrĂ© massage parlor, an ever-expanding cast of characters, and a feeling that all those things the tinfoil-hat brigade have been saying about the world we live in might be true, even if weâ€™ll never know why. Itâ€™s also, in its way, a love story. Late in the film, as if delivering the punchline to the joke that Anderson and Pynchon have been slowly telling their audiences all along (i.e. that, through sheer attention, you might possibly be able to unravel all of thisâ€”ha ha!), we see Doc, stoned, of course, from behind, crouched on his apartment floor in front of a massive whiteboard that lists most of the characters and oddly named things referenced throughout the film. There are a few lines drawn connecting items on the list, but itâ€™s clear that poor Doc is as puzzled as audiences likely will be.
So, he gives up (and if his stoned haze throughout suggests a man who may not have ever fully gotten started, the film proves him quite the effective private dick). With Shasta seemingly back in Gordita for a while, Doc chooses instead to bite off a piece of the puzzle he can actually chew on: getting the supposedly ODâ€™d Coy Harlingen out of service to various unsavory sources and back home to his wife and young child. This being Pynchon, Coyâ€™s reentry ticket to the good life is a shiny American Express card. We definitely canâ€™t win, have only the slimmest chance of escape, and the fight itself yields only increasingly diminished rewards. And yet we find this same move all over Pynchonâ€”heroes getting dangerously close to that secret It undergirding everything before choosing the small victory and retreating back to just living in the moment. Their â€śForget it Jake, itâ€™s Chinatownâ€ť would go something like: â€śForget it Doc [or Oedipa Mass or Maxine Turnow or Jeremiah Dixon], itâ€™s History.â€ť
The filmâ€™s saddest moment on this score involves its most solid, least â€śhippie scumâ€ť figure: toward the end of the film, the unassailable, unimpeachable police detective Bigfoot, working basically the same case as Doc but from different angles, clearly now gone to seed, kicks down Docâ€™s door, eats a pile of grass and leaves. Doc sheds a tear for Bigfootâ€™s loss of belief in coherence, rightness, and good guys winning over badâ€”another one bites the dust, and the two are now closer in spirit than ever. Anderson imbues these two crucial momentsâ€”the deliverance of Coy and the destruction of Bigfootâ€”with the necessary pathos: all at once, in in the course of a couple scenes, a funny, high-wire feat of literary adaptation finds a big beating heart.
Though Pynchon can impressively sling jargon and his encyclopedic knowledge heâ€™s really a quite innocent sentimentalist at heart, always on the side of the stoners, losers, loners, and weirdoesâ€”the romantic thinkers. By the same token, Andersonâ€™s much discussed penchant for virtuosic camera maneuvers and creating holistic, heroic movie-movies is perhaps revealed by Inherent Vice to be somewhat less impressive than his intuitive facility with actorsâ€”donâ€™t forget he molded art from lumps of clay like Mark Wahlberg and Adam Sandlerâ€”which suggests that his abiding interest might just be in homo sapiens as well. So perhaps we find here an aesthetic match between two artists based less on the symbiosis of their intellects or philosophies than the possibility that both have been somewhat misunderstood on the basis of surface pyrotechnic excesses. Maybe where they most overlap is as chroniclers of Americaâ€™s alternative histories, creating weighty unruly texts that peel back master narratives to poke around for the hidden tales that might well be a more accurate representation of the United States of Malaise: the late 1700s (Mason & Dixon), the stirrings of the 20th Century (Against the Day), the 1920s (There Will Be Blood), World War II (Gravityâ€™s Rainbow), the 1950s (The Master), the 1970s (The Crying of Lot 49, Inherent Vice, Boogie Nights), the 1980s (Vineland), the turn of the 21st Century (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, Bleeding Edge). For both artists, the time in which their works are set may be their defining elements. Place their output end to end and youâ€™ve got a flabby, silly, hotboxed Peopleâ€™s History, which, all apologies to Howard Zinn, sounds pretty good to me. Necessary even. Right on.