Convoluted adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, with a soundtrack curated by Jonny Greenwood
Renowned for their denseness and complexity, reclusive American author Thomas Pynchon’s novels have long been dismissed as unfilmable. And with good reason: frankly, you’d have more luck adapting a banana for the big screen than trying to squeeze one of the Gravity’s Rainbow author’s fiendishly strange stories into a two-hour script.
But director Paul Thomas Anderson – whose Inherent Vice is the first cinema adapation of a Pynchon book – isn’t interested in the merely possible. At 44, the Californian auteur already looks like one of the greats, exploding onto the scene with porn-industry epic Boogie Nights in 1997 and staking fresh claim to genius a decade later with There Will Be Blood, his oil-drenched journey into the heart of American darkness.
In adapting Inherent Vice, Pynchon’s 2009 gumshoe novel set in the ’70s, Anderson promises a slapstick-heavy affair that riffs on stoner comics, Cheech & Chong and Police Squad! – welcome news to those who thought his last effort, 2012’s The Master, was a bit of a snooze.
The film centres around pot-addled private detective Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who investigates a shady property tycoon’s disappearance after his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterson) tips him off that some bad business is about to go down. In the course of his inquiries, Doc must contend with a motley cast of members of the revolutionary Black Panther Party, neo-Nazi loan sharks, spirit guides played by Joanna Newsom, and a sulky, square-jawed copper called Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who hates his hippy guts.
What follows is a deliberately haphazard web of intrigue in which Doc discerns the hand of a sinister crime syndicate called the Golden Fang – and, well, that’s about as far as it’s possible to get with the plot. Inherent Vice is hellishly tough to make sense of, maybe because it doesn’t make much sense at all. On the plus side, the film looks and sounds like a dream (Can and Neil Young feature on the Jonny Greenwood-curated soundtrack), and Phoenix has a blast as Doc, looking like a pot-blearied, bedraggled Wolverine with no sense of linear time. He’s a paranoid hero for a paranoid moment in US history, and the film is littered with oblique references to the moral chaos of the post-Manson murders, post-Altamont period.
But for all the comedy pratfalls and sight gags (Brolin sucking on a chocolate-covered banana is particularly choice), Inherent Vice is a tough nut to crack. It’s as if, in striving to navigate the tonal intricacies of Pynchon’s style, Anderson misses the joy of his best work. What’s left is a weirdly mannered affair that’s nowhere near as much fun as it wants you to think it is. Far out? Sure. But out of sight? Not even close.