I’ve had a couple different conversations by now which involved listing all the other filmmakers that come to mind when watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. The director has already acknowledged a surprising influence from the early nineteen-eighties oeuvre of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, especially Top Secret!, and the film does often play like one of their outlandish comedies dragged through a heavy Anderson filter in much the same way that Punch Drunk Love is a standard Adam Sandler comedy given the same transformative treatment. There’s also the clearest echo of Robert Altman since Anderson’s Magnolia, if only in a clear resemblance to the bygone master’s own stab at beachside noir, 1973’s The Long Goodbye. There’s arguably some Coen brothers around the fringes of the movie’s stoned daffiness and a little Tarantino to the propensity for long, languid takes as characters talk in edgy, quasi-sedated chatterbox rhythms. Even though Anderson is a noted conduit for the cinema that haunts him (a tendency that most famously manifested in his choice to watch The Treasure of the Sierra Madre repeatedly while working on There Will Be Blood, practically willing the movie to imprint on his artistic soul), there’ probably a far simpler explanation for the alchemy that led to Inherent Vice. This is exactly what I’d expect it to look like when Anderson does his best to channel Thomas Pynchon.
Inherent Vice is based on Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name, a detective story widely considered one of his most accessible books, which means it’s still a paragon of vivid inscrutability. The story follows a perpetually stoned hippie P.I. named Larry “Doc” Sportello, whose former old lady Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) comes gliding back into his life. She needs help because she’s enmeshed in a complicated scenario involving wealth, extramarital affairs, and all sorts of devious plotting. This is the first snapping cable in an exploding suspension bridge. Doc continues getting drawn further and further into wide-ranging affairs that involve drug trafficking, a missing real estate magnate, murder, an illicit massage parlor, a evil consortium of dentists, and any number of problematic things that answer to the moniker Golden Fang. It’s an pulp novel detective story rapped out on hemp paper using a typewriter outfitted with ink rendered from acid tabs.
Anderson previously adapted a musty Upton Sinclair novel for There Will Be Blood, but he took a fairly free hand with the material. This is the first instance in which he makes himself a faithful adherent to his source material. It has Anderson’s distinctive stamp, but it’s clearly a Pynchon’s movie, with all the brilliance and distance that implies. It’s a difficult movie to love, precisely because Pynchon doesn’t give a second thought as to whether or not his story will work for those that consume it. He builds a glittering mansion and then doesn’t give a fuck about putting in a findable door. Anderson works from the exact same architectural drawings.
And yet that’s not to imply that Inherent Vice isn’t enjoyable. it’s often uproariously funny, especially when Phoenix manages to deliver a line reading or reaction shot that is so offbeat it could have been first workshopped in a Method class on the far side of Neptune. And if most of the other members of the all-star cast (Reese Witherspoon! Martin Short! Owen Wilson!) have less of a chance to make an impression, at least there’s Benicio del Toro as a maritime lawyer associate of Doc’s, the Academy Award-winning actor plying his usual trade of somehow delivering lines as if he were meticulously shaping words in accordance with the way they looked after they were transcribed onto a damp napkin. Josh Brolin’s perpetually angry cop “Bigfoot” Bjornsen is the designated scene stealer, but the performance slips a little too close to the cartoonish for my taste. Inherent Vice is better when it’s playing its willful ludicrousness a little dryer. Luckily, that’s most of time.