Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Runtime: 145 minutes
Finding the right writer/director to adapt a distinctive novel is no easy task. When directors apply too much of their own vision, the original text gets lost in the shuffle (though The Shining is still an example of how such an approach can work). And if the director is too safe, the source material ends up being worshipped as gospel, often resulting in sluggish, line-by-line adaptations that fail to leap from the page to the screen. Perfect marriages of director and source material, those that complement each other rather than engage in a stylistic tug of war, are rare, but not impossible. The Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men set a high standard seven years ago, and in October David Fincher's Gone Girl joined its ranks. The latest adaptation to work so well, even if it's not quite great, is Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice.
It's understandable that it's taken so long for a Pynchon adaptation to reach cinemas. The reclusive author's works are characterized by dense, head-spinning prose wrapped around byzantine plots. Inherent Vice, as a novel, isn't as overwhelming as something like "Gravity's Rainbow," however, which makes it a smarter pick for a silver screen debut. In Anderson, Pynchon's novel has found an artist perfectly adapting to its pot-smoke flooded atmosphere and shaggy dog storytelling.
Set right at the end of the 60s, Inherent Vice, like the novel, wastes no time in getting started. The instant drug-fueled detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) wakes up, he's confronted by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who's come to beg for help in the dead of night. Shasta's new boyfriend, land development millionaire Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is in danger of being thrown in a psych ward so that his wife and her lover can claim his fortune. It's a classic noir opening, albeit dressed up in 60s threads and surrounded by LA surf culture and neon lights instead of venetian blinds.
But it's not long after this encounter that Doc finds himself in way over his head and the plot starts to snowball into a web of alliances, double crosses, and conspiracies. People show up out of the blue with cryptic warnings, and somehow everyone he meets, no matter how different, is somehow connected. Everyone, good, bad, or in between, has an agenda except for Doc, who wanders through the story like a confused extra rather than a true protagonist. If you come into Inherent Vice expecting answers to all of your questions, you're out of luck. Doc barely understands everything going on, and Anderson keeps the film rooted in his perspective. There are so many angles in Vice's story that it can be dizzying to keep them all together.
Even so, Anderson's ability to capture the tone of Pynchon's overall story as well as his prose is commendable. Clocking in at two and a half hours, it's quite the long trip down the marijuana-scented rabbit hole, but the contact high Inherent Vice provides is often a pleasurable one. Though often quite funny, there's a pointed commentary on display about how those in power co-opt counterculture movements that gives the film just enough of a point to justify its narrative ramblings.
Though Phoenix is the story's only true main character (everyone else drifts in and out of the story at a moment's notice), it's the massive supporting cast that really owns Vice. Josh Brolin is an early standout as Lt. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, a straight-laced cop who enjoys nothing more than making Doc's "hippie bullshit" life hell. His interactions with Doc bring out the film's off-kilter humor in both dialogue exchanges and weird visual gags. Waterston is an effectively alluring and conflicted surfer femme fatale, and makes her relationship with the considerably older Mr. Phoenix believable. Though underused, Benicio Del Toro is spot on as Doc's lawyer, while Owen Wilson and Jena Malone turn in memorable work as a missing musician and his wife, respectively. A somewhat unrecognizable Eric Roberts is also quite good as the missing Mickey Wolfmann, once the character finally surfaces.
Despite the characters who pop up across the entire film, the most memorable performance comes from one of the story's one-off characters. As a corrupt, drug-addled dentist, Martin Short delivers an arrestingly gonzo performance that marks Inherent Vice's comedic high point. To see his character leave the story so quickly is a bit of a disappointment. Other characters have plenty of spark to contrast with Doc's mellow attitude, but the dynamism Short brings to the film is often missed during other key scenes.
Perplexingly, the cast member who is least consistent is Phoenix. Though his look and mannerisms are spot on, the actor's delivery is wildly inconsistent. Even when his face is glazed over, there's a sharpness to Phoenix's eyes and features that never quite sinks into Doc's mindset. Similarly to his work in The Immigrant, Phoenix sometimes just feels too tightly wound and modern to fully immerse himself in Doc, who's the epitomization of a very specific subculture and time period. Phoenix certainly has his moments in the role, but just when he appears to have fully clicked with the character, some piece of dialogue or interaction comes along and rings false.
Phoenix may be inconsistent, but at least the storytelling and tone are set on the right path. Anderson holds keeps the pieces of the story together, at times just barely, ensuring that enough of it makes sense while leaving plenty of connections skimmed over to the point where the film practically demands a second viewing. Anderson's longtime cinematographer Robert Elswit allows certain images to look grainy or rough, further drawing one into the story's representation late 60's Los Angeles. Composer Jonny Greenwood contributes a moody, accessible score that nicely contrasts with the purposefully eerie themes written for Anderson's previous two films (There Will Be Blood & The Master). Other production details are excellent across the board, though special mention should be given to the hair and makeup team for putting so much personality in each character's coiffure.
Though Inherent Vice's longwinded structure can lead to sporadic lulls in pacing, it's still an engaging trip through the mind of one of the most important writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Vice is not regarded as one of Pynchon's greatest works, and the film isn't one of Anderson's finest, but both work as engrossing pieces of entertainment that finely straddle the lines between high and low culture. It's proof that one can create a perfectly successful and satisfying adaptation of a novel without straining to find a hidden greatness that was probably never there in the first place. And even if it was, it would probably just go up in smoke anyway.