By Gabriel Ricard
I had a feeling that I was going to get to the end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and mutter something along the lines of “What the fuck just happened?” I figured that was going to be due to the fact that I have not read the Thomas Pynchon novel that the movie comes from.
But I suspect that even if I had read the book, even if I had cuddled with Pynchon himself over breakfast tea and a Cheers marathon, I still wouldn’t really feel like I understood anything that happened in Anderson’s film adaptation of Pynchon’s work. This is the first time someone has ever adapted a Thomas Pynchon novel into a feature-length film.
It’s easy to understand why that is, and you only need the first ten minutes of Inherent Vice to realize this.
I don’t know Pynchon’s work, in terms of specifics, but I do know enough to understand that for some people, no one is ever going to capture his insanity, his tone, or his humor with film. Anderson clearly comes from a place of respect, in trying to create a cinematic version of Pynchon’s drugged out, spaced out, flat out fantastic story. Opinions on whether or not he succeeded in realizing Pynchon’s highly dense, deeply surreal literature are going to be wildly polarized. In other words, you’re either going to love every single creepy, hilarious, drier-than-a-Mormon-orgy moment that is crammed into the movie’s 2 ½ hour running time, or you’re going to wish hot, sick death on Anderson, because he wasted so much of your precious time.
In this story of a druggy detective named Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) falling head over heels into the kind of nightmare of faces and circumstances that not even Marlowe would touch, I think I’m in the first category described in the paragraph above. I think. I’m not sure. It’s hard to trust things, after a movie as breathlessly weird and engaging as Inherent Vice is. I know I wasn’t bored. I don’t think anyone who has seen this movie was truly bored by it. Generally, no one writes viciously negative reviews about movies that made them fall asleep.
So I wasn’t bored, as I watched Sportello wander across a burnt-out, horrified mass of buildings, streets, and nut jobs, of what seemed like a half-dozen different stories that just happened to take place in chronological order. I just don’t know what to make of everything that happens between Doc taking on a case for an ex he still pines for (the absolutely wonderful Katherine Waterston, and here’s hoping she picks up some bigger gigs after this), and whatever the fuck is actually going on at the end.
I was thrilled and consistently engaged, but I was constantly wondering if I was truly enjoying the substance of the journey Inherent Vice takes me on. Or if I was just having a really good time with the drug culture, the sideshow imagery, and all the fearful personalities that make up the world Doc finds himself in. Would having read the book beforehand influenced any of my opinions?
Probably, but even if I had, that shouldn’t influence my perceptions of the film to any significant degree. Paul Thomas Anderson and Inherent Vice must stand as more than just an adaptation of a book. You can judge the film on that measure, but you must also judge the movie on whether or not it succeeds as a purely cinematic device. If you need the book to enjoy the movie, then the movie has failed to succeed as a purely cinematic device.
I can only speak for Inherent Vice as a cinematic device. On that front, I have to admit that my opinion of the movie may change with a second or third viewing. I fully intend to get to a second or third go-round in the near future. For now, I’m pretty sure I had a great time with the movie’s casual tone for relating characters and situations that in the hands of any other filmmaker, would have felt like a 1990s Nickelodeon cartoon on acid, cocaine, and oil drums full of malt liquor. I know I was floored by actors like Martin Short, Martin Donovan, Eric Roberts, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Josh Brolin, and retired porn actress Belladonna (appearing in Inherent Vice as Michelle Sinclair), all of whom contributed something meaningful to this story. I know that Anderson undertook a project and a writer that no other filmmaker has dared to touch with any sense of seriousness.
Certainly, I know that when you look over the films of 2014, which is a pretty incredible range of visions and stories, Inherent Vice is something that is going to stand alone. There is nothing like it, and I’m inclined to think that’s a good thing. There is so much story going on here. The plot is brilliant in that it lures you in with a straightforward premise, and then expects you to keep up with the long list of oddballs and story twists that come your way. I would imagine Pynchon’s novel is the same as this movie, in that both don’t really care if you do keep up.
Quick aside, but I think a good secondary title for Inherent Vice would have been “FUCKING MARKETING NIGHTMARE.” If you watch the trailer, don’t assume that doing so will prepare you for the movie in any way. It won’t.
Inherent Vice demands your complete attention. It demands repeat viewings, as well. It is an incredible ocean of characters, wildly obvious jokes, and things that may only exist in the eyes of the viewer. It is enormously complex, yet approachable and potentially enjoyable as pure, unpredictable entertainment. I’m completely confident in every aspect of that belief. What I don’t know for certain is whether or not all of those beliefs are going to remain intact, when I do in fact get around to watching it again.
And I think that’s a good thing. There are movies that you would be happy to watch again, but you’re not in any significant hurry to do so. There are movies you’re finished with, long before the movie itself is actually finished, but you stay through to the bitter end, because you’re stupid like that. Then there are movies like Inherent Vice, and this is the category that is a bit rare.
Inherent Vice belongs to a group of movies that must be seen more than once to be fully appreciated. You can’t wait for the opportunity, and you can’t wait for what is essentially going to feel like you’re seeing the movie for the first time, even though you are indeed seeing it again.