Inherent Vice is as exhausting as it is inspired, a paranoiac shaggy dog story as sexy and alienating as the era it depicts. It’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen, and infuriating to watch at least half the time. Following the plot is like trying to pin a watermelon seed to the table with your fingertip, where the harder you push, the farther it squirts away. In other words, an all-too-perfect Thomas Pynchon adaptation, just as bonkers and hard to get through as one of his novels. But even to someone who finds Pynchon as unreadable as I do, his storytelling style seems especially fitting for the period, the perfect way to depict the counter culture as it lost the plot. In Inherent Vice, you lose the plot right along with them, zoning out for a while, then snapping into focus just long enough for an epiphany about the real levers of power followed by a no-strings ball sesh with your old lady and another joint and a nap.
It’s 1970. The sixties are over, MLK and RFK are dead, and non-violent resistance has given way to secret societies openly advocating revolution – Hunter Thompson’s wave, Joan Didion’s heroin-addled Haight Street, the Manson murders, all that shit.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Larry Sportello, a burned out, oft-barefoot private eye who people call “Doc” on account of he works out of a doctor’s office. His ex-old lady Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) shows up one day to tell him she’s wrapped up in a plot to kidnap her boyfriend, a shady developer named Michael Z. Wolfman (Eric Roberts), put together by Wolfman’s wife. The next day, Doc gets a hot tip from a black militant named Tariq Khalil (Omar from The Wire), who was just in Chino with an Aryan biker named Glenn Charlock, who just so happens to be a bodyguard for that very same Wolfman. So Doc heads over to Chick Planet to check it out, a massage parlor with a very descriptive menu, where he questions a hooker named “Jade” as she tries to sell him on “The Pussy Eater’s Special.” That’s when Doc gets conked on the head and wakes up to a flat-topped cop named Bigfoot who used to be a Hollywood stuntman (Josh Brolin) asking all kinds of questions.
I’ve just described maybe the first three minutes of a 149-minute film and I think you’re already getting a sense of Pynchon’s fractal plotting. He doesn’t so much tell stories as he endlessly spews silly character names and accompanying loglines, in some kind of clackety-clack hepcat patois, like a bongo drum filled with footnotes. You’ll be watching (or reading), thinking this discursive info puke is just about to subside, but it just keeps coming and coming and coming, like a Mel Brooks Ayahuasca hemorrhage – Petunia Leeway! Clancy Charlock! Dr. Buddy Tubeside! The arsonist had oddly-shaped feet! – until you want to scream YES, YES, YOU’RE VERY CLEVER.
Every scene is a new character, and every character has her own personal macguffin. With PTA at the helm, it actually works better on film than on the page (I assume, I’ve never made it through an entire Pynchon novel), where every two minutes or so there’s a brand new playground for the production designer and a hamming-it-up character actor. As Anderson said recently, it’s rare that you get to tell an actor to go bigger, and that freedom comes through. PTA even piles on top of the already insanely busy text in almost every scene, staging something hilarious and/or absurd in the foreground of the scene’s written action – Josh Brolin deepthroating a chocolate-dipped banana, Jade popping out the vagina of a giant, naked woman wall mural.
I have to imagine that the only reason a Pynchon novel hadn’t been adapted before now is that they couldn’t afford enough actors. Inherent Vice gives us memorable cameos by everyone from Benicio Del Toro to Martin Short to Eric Roberts to ex-MMA fighter Keith Jardine and porn star Belladonna (great performances by both, incidentally), with the whole thing partially narrated by Joanna Newsom (Mrs. Andy Samberg, as well as Gavin Newsom’s distant cousin, exactly the kind of weird, irrelevent backstory you’d find in Pynchon).
The strongest thing about Inherent Vice is that it taps into some kind of mystical sense memory of an era I didn’t even live through. I found it equal parts comforting and unsettling. I was trying to figure out why when I came across some old pictures and realized that Inherent Vice was like someone had animated my dad’s old photo albums in full-color HD:
It’s like the entire movie exists on this plane of hazy imagery. Is that my memory? The echoes of someone else’s? The pop-culture trickle down of history’s most self-indulgent generation?