Review: Paul Thomas Anderson turns ‘Inherent Vice’ into a woozy, wild triumph

NEW YORK – Thomas Pynchon's “Inherent Vice” is probably the most accessible novel he's ever written, set in 1970, a sort of hyper-clever nod to the Raymond Chandler tradition of Los Angeles detective stories. As much as I wanted to like his work, I was never able to really dig in and enjoy Pynchon's books. They felt to me like something to be conquered. With “inherent Vice,” I finally found myself caught up in not just his language but with his characters and the world that he was describing. It was my in to the rest of his work, and so it holds a special place for me among his novels.

Pynchon is one of literature's true pilgrims, a guy perpetually pushing forward against the constraints of what pop culture will bear. His first book “V.” is the story of a discharged sailor who loses himself in the artistic community of an early-'60s New York City, told in a kaleidoscopic style that is dazzling but exhausting. “The Crying Of Lot 49” is a reality-fracturing story about a conflict between two companies, both created to help distribute mail. His third book was the one that cemented his status with critics as one of the main voices of the 20th century, and it took me about four tries to finally make it through “Gravity's Rainbow.” It is about nothing less than the totality of post-WWII culture, and it is a bombardment of words and images and ideas.

He pulled a Salinger and vanished for decades, but Pynchon did eventually re-emerge, and he started with “Vineland,” then “Mason & Dixon,” then “Against The Day.” Those were all received with mixed reactions, but it felt like people were glad to at least have Pynchon back in the mix. There's an ongoing debate about the state of health of the American novel, and having a guy like Pynchon turning out books goes a long way towards making it seem like the novel is in no danger of disappearing.

The last word I would ever use for Pynchon's work is “cinematic,” so it seems like a perverse joke that Paul Thomas Anderson would go all-in on an adaptation of one of Pynchon's books. Even more unlikely is just how right Anderson ends up being for the material. It would be easy to try to compare “Inherent Vice” to other films in the same genre. You'll read plenty of comparisons to Robert Altman's “The Long Goodbye” or “The Big Lebowski” by the Coens, but it's really not doing the same thing either of those films did. This is a singular thing, and it is gorgeous.

It's not a movie. It's a contact high.

The idea that the same writer/director and star made this and “The Master” is insane. Crazy-talk. Impossible. This movie is so funny, so strange, so wonderfully charmingly deranged. I love Doc Sportello in a way that I didn't love him in the book, and that's because Joaquin plays him with such a sense of decency, a confusion as to why the world has to be so shitty. He is a good man in a weird time, and the way he approaches the world and the people in it makes me really love the guy.

Robert Elswit's photography is miraculous. This looks like it was shot in 1970, on 1970 film stock, with no sense of making it precious. It's not a period film. It just looks like it was shot when it is set, and looking at Los Angeles in the film, I don't see anything that betrays the changes the city has gone through. It's almost miraculous how right they get it.

Part of why I'm having trouble explaining my reaction to the movie is because it feels like someone did research on my particular fetishes and decided to make an entire movie tailored to them. I'm fascinated by the history of Los Angeles. This is a town that was built on a foundation of shit, corruption and crime and shady deals and the rich eating the poor, same as it ever was, and movies that tell detective stories against that backdrop play to my sweet spot. I love James Ellroy and Harry Bosch and Walter Mosely and Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and one of the reasons “Chinatown” rang my bell so hard the first time I saw it was the idea that they could explain the history of water in Los Angeles county as a murder mystery.

So watching a film like this, I would expect to love the recreation of LA and the mystery story, but what it really does beautifully is capture the moment that the counterculture and the conservative movement struggled for the soul of California, the shadow of Charlie Manson still coloring things, the canonization of cops on TV part of the fight. It's a movie about big ideas that never once feels overwhelmed by the burden of being about big ideas because it's so busy being so goddamned silly.

Did I mention that the film is laugh out loud funny? It is. Wait until you see Josh Brolin in this thing. I'm not sure when the last time was that he looked this engaged in a film. There are things he does to a chocolate banana… you'll see. He is every repressed and angry cop watching the world go crazy with free love and drugs and he can't deal with just how furious it all makes him. Doc is the manifestation of all of that, and so their relationship becomes a tension point that means something more.

There are a number of performances here that just crushed me. Benicio Del Toro is, as usual next-level awesome, and Paul Thomas Anderson might have just won the “Who can give Martin Short the greatest role ever?” contest. Hong Chau is crazy good as Jade, a hooker who helps Doc. I love her. I seriously just adore every scene she's in. Jeannie Berlin's one scene is OH MY GOD GREAT. And Eric Roberts in his one scene makes up for every shitty Avi Lerner movie he's ever been paid for. The person who I walked away most impressed by, though, is Katherine Waterston. I don't know her beyond this movie, but I guarantee we'll be seeing her again. She plays Shasta, Doc's former girlfriend and the one who draws him into this case. There are two scenes involving her near the end of the film that are about as good as acting gets, just her and Phoenix and a whole lot of truth, and I want to see the film again immediately just to start pulling those scenes apart.

There is so much to digest. The way the film plays with memory and with chronology is fascinating. One of the great detective movies/novels of all time is “The Big Sleep,” and one of the things that I find most amazing about the book and the movie is that they simply don't add up. The mystery doesn't really work, in a few key ways, and it doesn't matter. Well, “Inherent Vice” is like having someone who watched “The Big Sleep” at 3:45 in the morning three weeks ago while reeeeeeeally high trying to explain the movie to you, while reeeeeeeally high again. And I love it. I love the broken way Doc processes things.

I like how slowly the story comes into focus. By the time you realize it's really a movie about Doc saving someone in particular, it's late in the dense running time, and it just sort of dawns on you slowly that you're not watching the movie or the case you thought you were watching. I had no idea two and a half hours had gone by. I couldn't have told you at the end of it if it was long or short or really anything about the time.

Jonny Greenwood's score is the best thing he's ever done. It starts in a place of pure anachronism and by the time it reaches the other end of the movie, he's done something like ten different kinds of movie scores, and it's perfect. The movie movies in these weird elliptical patterns of thought, and so does the score, and the use of period music is damn near brilliant. It's nothing like the typical jukebox approach. It's very specific. The film has such a voice.

I mean… what I'm talking around here… what I'm really just saying over and over… is that Paul Thomas Anderson is working on a different level right now than anyone else. I respected “The Master” but I never felt the film the way I felt his earlier work. This time, he has landed the punch in a big way, and I am shaken by just how good he is. His films are technical marvels, but in a way that people may not ever notice. The knock against him when “Boogie Nights” came out was that he was merely imitating the work done by other filmmakers, and even then, I thought that criticism felt unfair. Sure, he's watched everything and absorbed it, but that's what any good filmmaker does. Film is a language, and he learned to speak it fluently from others. What he does with that language now, though, is pure storytelling working as text, as subtext, and invested with such feeling, such a rich sense of character and place, that no one can say he's imitating anyone or anything at this point.

This isn't “The Long Goodbye.” It's not Altman. It's not Mazursky. It's not even Pynchon. It's not any of the many precursors. It's all of them at once, but in a way that is genuinely his.

I need to see it about eight more times. Soon.

So, yeah. That.

“Inherent Vice” arrives in general release on January 9, 2015.