Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Is Stubbornly Shapeless

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Photo: Wilson Webb/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Last Saturday (the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar, incidentally), the New York Film Festival screened Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, and I’m still trying to grok it fully. It might take another few months and another screening (on a non-holy day), but the movie doesn’t open until December, so what’s the goddamn rush? Objectively speaking, it’s different from anything Anderson has done before, and he has done some weird shit.

The film is a gorgeous stoner art object, at once groovy and glacial. It’s exceptionally faithful to the book, which is Pynchon’s contribution to the L.A. stoner private-eye genre, the highest (so to speak) achievements of which are (and remain) Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and the Coens’ The Big Lebowski. One thing they have in common is that their narratives unravel as they go along, and this one isn’t too raveled to begin with.

In the movie, which takes place in 1970, the rhythms are set by Joaquin Phoenix, one of America’s best and least-choate film actors. He plays Doc, an ex-hippie drug dealer turned licensed private investigator. He’s vegetating in his anti-orderly beach bungalow when a vision appears: the willowy hippie chick (Katherine Waterston) he loved and lost to the ether of the counterculture. She’s nervous about something. She’s dating a wealthy Jewish wannabe-Nazi real-estate mogul guarded by Aryan bikers and has been contacted by his wife and her boyfriend — not to drive her off, but to bribe her into helping them put the man in the booby hatch. Already the geometry is bizarre, and the movie has barely started. Then the girl and the mogul disappear — although this is the sort of movie where she might be dead or she might have flaked off because she needed more space. And what’s the difference, really?

Phoenix wears a mutton chop; his curly sideburns resemble Quentin Collins’s on the contemporaneous Dark Shadows. Characters remark that Doc reeks, but the information is redundant: Neither water nor soap look to have touched him in eons. (The Method-y Phoenix might well have eschewed showering for the duration of the shoot; he is that dedicated.) He twitches a lot and mutters to himself à la Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye, but he doesn’t carry the symbolic weight of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe. I suppose he’s a romantic figure — a chivalric pothead — but with little in the way of a motor. It’s a good thing Phoenix has bales of emotion, or his taking his sweet time would be an irritant.

I’ve heard it said that Inherent Vice is Anderson’s return to “ensemble movies” after the relatively intimate The Master. Er, no. It’s not an ensemble film — it’s a showcase for Phoenix (he’s in almost every shot) with a lot of guest stars, cameos, and hipster drop-ins. The only other part of any size belongs to Josh Brolin. He plays a hardass, civil-rights-violating cop (he often says he’s been out violating civil rights), known affectionately as Bigfoot, who hates hippies and throws the slur at Doc every time he sees him — though Doc is hardly a classic hippie these days. This is post-Altamont and presumably post–Kent State, and the air is starting to leak out of the whoopee cushion that is counterculture, leaving paranoid bad vibes. In any case, Doc and Bigfoot have a strange kind of infantile, mismatched-buddy thing going on. They need each other to exist.

The scenes between Phoenix and Brolin are little gems of comic business; Bigfoot — a would-be actor — stews over not getting enough movie and TV offers and sucks on chocolate-covered bananas. Occasionally, he’ll stomp on Doc to get the anger out of his system. The two actors look like they’re having a whale of a time; I bet they broke each other up. I was giggling like a fool.

Inventive performers constantly pop up for quirky pas de deux with Phoenix, some of which go on (in single takes) a long time. In flashbacks, Waterston perches naked in bed next to Phoenix and speaks (with long, long pauses between lines) about something I couldn’t quite focus on. Jena Malone has a funny, poignant scene as the wife of a supposedly O.D.’ed negligible surf-band sax player. Her memory of her first encounter with her husband — “We didn’t meet cute, we met sordid” — raises the bar for kinky yecchhh. Reese Witherspoon with a lacquered hair helmet shows up as a straitlaced assistant D.A. improbably sleeping with Doc, their vibe sufficiently different from the one in Walk the Line to make you smile. Martin Short sidles onto the screen in a purple suit as a sleazeball dentist; he has his own inimitable loopy rhythms. Singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom (narrating from Pynchon’s book), Michael K. Williams, Owen Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Benicio del Toro, and, more memorably, Jeanie Berlin, Martin Donovan, and Jefferson Mays are in there, too. Plus others, drifting across the screen like flakes of hippie dandruff.

While his camera ogles the actors, Anderson serves up a moody, aestheticized Left Coast of beach bungalows, stairways to nowhere, culverts to nowhere, highways to nowhere — a lot of beautiful nowheres. He bakes Phoenix and Waterston in the light of a brick-red sunset. Some of the colors suggest '50s Fiestaware that has festered. He pipes in loud pop songs in the manner of Tarantino, but the soundtrack isn’t hip for hipness’s sake. The man who in Magnolia argued that what the world needs now is Aimee Mann is trying to ratchet up the passion in a way that borders on operatic.

Inherent Vice can use that passion. Like Pynchon’s novel, it’s a little insular, too cool for school. It’s drugged camp. Some of the plot points get lost in that ether — it’s actually less coherent than Pynchon, no small feat. It’s not shallow, though. Underneath the surface is a vision of the counterculture fading into the past, at the mercy of the police state and the encroachment of capitalism. But I’m not sure the whole thing jells. At two and a half hours, it overstays its welcome. It’s stubbornly shapeless. Maybe when I see it again, I’ll smoke a little weed first. I’m looking forward to that.