Neil Young has a habit of changing course just when everybody starts to get on his wavelength. He’ll follow up an acclaimed album of pretty acoustic songs like Harvest with some loud fucked up sadness like On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night. It’s becoming apparent that Paul Thomas Anderson is a little like that, too. Early in his career, Anderson made a name for himself as the guy who wove dozens of disparate characters into the sweeping tapestries of Boogie Nights and Magnolia. He then abandoned his templates for the anger and intimacy of Punch-Drunk Love. Now Anderson, the zig-zag wanderer, has done it again, following up two raw portraits of American ego with an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, a goofy escapade to the paranoid summit of Stoner Mountain. If the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis was the album cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan come to life, Inherent Vice is the cover and title of Young’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. It’s the death knell of the ‘60s being banged on a dimestore gong.
Joaquin Phoenix, too, shows a commitment to contrariness by starring as Doc Sportello, a mutton-chopped private investigator of dubious credentials who is the exact opposite of Freddy Quell, the pinched bag of nerves he portrayed in Anderson’s The Master. As Inherent Vice begins Sportello is hired by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy land mogul whom she’s currently shagging. From there Sportello finds himself trying to find more and more people, including Shasta herself and a saxophone-playing Owen Wilson. Dogging Sportello every step of the way is Bigfoot Bjornsen, a buzzcut with a badge played by Josh Brolin in perhaps the best performance of his career. There is enough plot in every reel of Inherent Vice to fill a season’s worth of television. Whether or not it adds up to anything is really of no concern to the picture.
This is Anderson’s second adaptation after There Will Be Blood but his approach to the source material is vastly different from the previous feature. In 2007 Anderson tapped into Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! as a springboard for his imagination. There Will Be Blood confidently struck out for new territory and transformed itself into something truly unique, becoming much more of an unflinching character study than a righteous polemic. Meanwhile Inherent Vice is about as faithful an adaptation as there ever has been. The film isn’t devout in its fidelity but it manages to cut right to the core of the book. Anderson wisely jettisons some of the inessentials and introduces a few new elements, the most pronounced and ingenious being Sortilége, a minor character from the novel who transforms into a narrator/guardian angel/apparition played by Joanna Newsom. Sortilége doesn’t really manage to keep us on track (what track?) but instead serves as an abstract thematic lynchpin. She is shorthand for the time and place (Newsom’s voice is perfect for a goddess of California circa 1970) while remaining separate from the proceedings, a bridge for us all to pass through.
In certain respects, Anderson’s film is an improvement on the novel simply because of its medium. Over the course of Pynchon’s 300 pages the repetitive plot convolutions tend towards tedium. Much of the mechanics of the story work better over 150 minutes, and perhaps more importantly, one continuous sitting. This is how the cottonmouthed dreams of Doc Sportello should unfurl, prohibiting temporary escapes back to reality. It feels right. The gleeful stacking of more and more useless plot contributes to the contact high Anderson is able to provide us.
While comparisons to other sunbaked stoner detective stories The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski are apt, Inherent Vice’s ability to not only recreate a bygone era but to make the audience complicit in its intoxicating mood recalls nothing more than the masterful boondoggle that is Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Both films possess the ability to make the viewer punch-drunk, leaving the theatre bleary-eyed and a little hungover. Inherent Vice is cinematic contraband, an uncontrollable substance that stays in your system for weeks to come.