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?
One of my favorite books is called Pleasant Hell, by a guy named John Dolan, a semi-autobiographical novel about a nerd growing up in Northern California in the seventies. The way he deifies the long-haired, smooth-legged beach babes of his seventies childhood (“pre-Raphaelites,” he calls them) the way only a truly marginalized, undersexed nerd can… watching Katherine Waterston in Inherent Vice, it’s like I know exactly how he felt. Like Dolan, Sportella is constantly surrounded by these achingly gorgeous but painfully dippy capricious hippie chicks. He never knows which loopy new age bullshit to roll with and which to run from screaming, and all the sex and hallucinogens and air of general decadence make it that much harder to figure out.
But whereas Dolan makes his undersexed, resentful teen self a character, Inherent Vice makes you wonder if Pynchon still is that character. It comes through most strongly in the film’s explanation of the title, Inherent Vice. “Inherent Vice,” Shasta Fay Hepworth explains bralessly, is a maritime insurance term for cargo that simply can’t be insured due to its very nature. “Eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters,” she coos. Which, like everything else in Inherent Vice, is elegantly, succinctly, sexily written. But Hepworth also seems to be using it as a metaphor for her own fickleness. She’s basically saying, “What did you expect from me? Eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters, bitches be crazy.”
Like so much of literature and pop culture from that era, Inherent Vice is full of paranoia, existential confusion, and ostentatious questioning of traditional social mores on a circuitous narrative path that, suspiciously, always seems to lead back to someone’s boner. As if to say, “in this crazy, f*cked up universe, the only thing I understand anymore is my own dick.” I mean, I guess I understand it, I just don’t think it’s particularly profound. And it seems like it wants me to.
For the most part, the movie only calcified my love of Paul Thomas Anderson and my narrow-eyed skepticism towards Pynchon. To PTA, Pynchon feels prescient, “a guy who always knows something we don’t.” Whereas for me, the conspicuous overplotting feels at best like a personal tic and at worst like a smokescreen, a seer whose “visions” are just confusing enough to occasionally feel like prophecy. All the cutesy names and glib backstories and the action edging into farce feel like Pynchon is daring us to disbelieve, and the provocation takes precedence over story.
Nothing against a provocateur, but it’d be so much easier to enjoy all Inherent Vice‘s open-ended narrative digressions (and I’m staunchly pro absurdity, as a general banana), if only they could leave well enough alone, and let them stand as a shaggy dog story. But instead, it seems compelled to anal-retentively tie up every. single. narrative loose end, long after the point at which I’ve thought “let it go, bro, no one gives a f*ck about the ship.”
Boogie Nights depicted a world (of porn) trying to cope with the transition from film to video. Inherent Vice depicts an even bigger world, trying to cope with an even bigger transition, where the counter culture tore down the “bullshit constructs” of a previous generation (racism, uptightness) without knowing which traditions to keep (say, washing your feet, or not feeding your baby heroin). In that way, the never-ending rush of characters and information and conspiracies suits the period perfectly. You never know which piece of information you should just let wash over you and which the rest of the story will depend on. Inherent Vice feels like a loving, singular portrait of an era that’s painful to relive, even if you never lived it in the first place.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.