Thomas Pynchon’s existentialist gumshoe noir gets a big-screen adaptation surprisingly full of heart
The Manhattan Beach apartment where Thomas Pynchon wrote Gravity' s Rainbow looks exactly like all the other ones around it. There's no memorial placard or telltale chemtrail to mark the spot where that infamously incomparable novel first came to life. The quiet, residential community where the former Boeing manual writer spent years scrawling unrepeatable obscenities, comic-book conspiracy theories, and honest-to-god rocket science on reams of graph paper looks more like Gordita Beach—the setting of Inherent Vice, a shorter, saner novel Pynchon published more than three decades later. This newer, neo-noir mystery was obviously a better project for Oscar-nominated writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson than the 700-plus-page post-modern prose-poem panic attack that won the 1974 National Book Award. Despite the German art-house film/ impossibly sad BMW commercial Prufstand VII (2002), which features several re-enactments of scenes from Gravity’s Rainbow (with Pynchon's permission), that book is still generally considered unfilmable, at least by major motion picture standards.
Indeed, Anderson might be the only director alive who could even hope to succeed at marrying major motion picture standards with any of Pynchon’s dense, dizzying prose. He’s certainly the first to bring the author’s work to the big screen in a way that doesn’t seem like the result of a squandered personal favor. Anderson's been known to drop frogs from the sky in the name of denouement but he plays it surprisingly straight with Inherent Vice, shying away from the cartoonish embellishments that Pynchon’s work seems to invite. Instead, Anderson pushes the silliest signifiers of Pynchon's presence—the stupid names, the dirty jokes, the references to obscure Marx Brothers—to the margins to make room for two things that aren't often considered Pynchon hallmarks: heart and soul.
Doc Sportello, a bummed-out if not completely burned-out hippie private investigator, is the latest too-tender, self-medicating truthseeker to be played by Joaquin Phoenix. Those mutton chops on almost any other A-List actor's face, and in almost any other director's field of vision, would become the film's main attraction, but Phoenix wears them easily in yet another remarkably naturalistic performance. As Pynchon protagonists go, Sportello's refreshingly proactive, almost, you might say, heroic. He's seeking to extract his ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterson) from the Sinister Conspiracy (the recurring heavy in all of Pynchon), rather than just questioning whether or not said conspiracy actually exists. It seems Shasta took up with Michael Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a corrupt, married land developer who's become disillusioned with his money and wants to give it away. His wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) and other interested parties would rather see Wolfmann committed to a mental asylum. Initially Doc just wants to see more sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll and less police brutality at the hands of Josh Brolin’s antagonistic detective, Bigfoot Bjornsen. This being 1970s So-Cal, Doc has no trouble finding plenty of all four without looking all that hard, but this being Pynchon—with all his quantum mechanics shout-outs—observation affects the experiment in unforeseen ways.
The more questions Sportello asks, the quicker he is to shield his balls from Bjornsen’s ensuing blows, but at a certain point, his persistence begins to pass for valor. The concept of “inherent vice,” a hidden defect in an ordered system that will eventually cause it to deteriorate, seems to apply as much to people as it does to property or conspiracies in its namesake film. In Gordita Beach during the wake of the Flower Power movement—“the high-watermark...where the wave finally broke and rolled back,” as Hunter S. Thompson called it—the most common vice seems to be a weakening resolve to go on treading water with no shore in sight. That Sportello could spare even the most pot-clouded thought toward keeping anyone else afloat during this particular generational comedown is more kindness than we might expect from Pynchon’s typically self-interested characters, but that only means we should watch more closely.
Like The Big Lebowski, The Long Goodbye, or the grandaddy of them all The Big Sleep, Inherent Vice is an existentialist gumshoe noir in which the disheveled private dick inadvertently answers a million dollar question he never bothered to ask. The case’s true resolution isn't that the butler did it but that the rule of law is either so unenforceable or so arbitrary that it might as well not exist at all, and most scorekeepers stack the odds in their own favor. Under these conditions, the only mystery the detective need solve is: How do I go on living with myself?