Inherent Vice and the Modern Audience’s Ambiguity Problem

Photo: Ghoulardi Film Company

If you do a little diving into the reviews for Paul Thomas Anderson’s new, highly misunderstood adaptation of the similarly virtuosic novel by Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice, bells start ringing. The movie is “stoned, a “twisty tale” that takes “foggy turns,” has “stoner vibes”; “nothing coheres,” there’s “more style than substance”; it’s “meant to be experienced more than fully understood”; “impenetrable,” “meandering,” “gnarled and goofy,” “less coherent than Pynchon.” The curtain goes up, and a whole chorus of critics can be seen throwing up their hands. Naysayers neigh that they can’t follow the story, and so they are bored, or else frustrated, by their listlessness, which they pin to the movie. They say it’s just the drugs talking, as this is a movie about drugs. They ask, what is Inherent Vice even about? 

In fact, Inherent Vice — a movie that broadly tells the story of a private investigator (Joaquin Phoenix) looking into a case on the behest of his ex-girlfriend, and all the characters he meets along the way — makes perfect sense, is organized like the walk-in closet of an obsessive, and is one of the season’s most subtextually significant movies. The problem isn’t with this movie; it’s with how we watch movies, and absorb narratives, in 2015.

Pynchon’s work is regarded as “difficult.” This is misleading. He’s one of our funniest writers and a beautiful stylist; his characters sometimes exist for only a sentence, but they’re among the most fully rendered in literature. Pynchon isn’t difficult because you can just skate along the grooves of his language and have a ball, even if you never breach the murk underneath. Instead, he’s difficult to understand in the way that we demand of our fictional narratives. And Anderson’s adaptation is the same way. 

Increasingly, we’ve become a culture that insists on resolution and explanation from our stories. We need to know who did it as immediately as possible. We need to know how True Detective ends, even before we’re halfway through the goddamn season. We need to know if the science is right in Interstellar, and why the characters in Game of Thrones, a show set in a world that contains dragons, are so mean to each other. Ambiguity has become like the Postal Service: We tolerate it only when absolutely necessary. Less and less are we content to be told a story; more and more we want to tell that story ourselves, showing that we get it, we got it, we figured it out.

Reality doesn’t work like this. In reality, the amount we do not understand, and aren’t aware of, is so overwhelmingly larger than the amount we can grasp that, as proto-civilizations, we had to fabricate stories to help ourselves mentally exist. We kept doing this — telling stories — but in many cases, we didn’t change the way we told them, even though the amount of information we had about the world continued to grow. The way we tell these stories still works, of course, particularly in the pursuit of drama and comedy, theatrical concepts that have been more or less understood since Aristotle. But Pynchon and Anderson are after something a little different. They certainly aren’t alone in this, but considering their status in their respective fields, their search for it is notable. They’re trying to understand the unknown, and that requires a different kind of narrative. 

Pynchon’s subject, and therefore Anderson’s, in Inherent Vice is the sheer extent to which we are powerless and ignorant in a world that could destroy us at any second, and, if we’re being honest, probably is. It’s nihilism, countered by faith in a sort of benign pleasure: love, booze, and easy drugs — the promise of the ’60s, a promise unfulfilled, even crushed. As subplots and sub-subplots burst and contract around Phoenix’s Doc Sportello — who almost never impacts any of the stories himself; he’s a receptacle, a vessel — Pynchon and Anderson show us America: a country full of weird people acting in their own self-interest, often erratically and inexplicably; a country where the most powerful exert their influence without us even knowing they are there; a country where the most unbelievable and far-fetched conspiracies frequently turn out to be real. 

It’s very hard to do this kind of storytelling because, to ring true, a narrative that rides on symbolism and signifying has to be so spot-on that it resonates even without the dramatic, emotional beats that we’re used to, or with those traditional points of connection scattered to the wind. Inherent Vice does this beautifully, with wonderful acting, evocative photography, and ingenious world-building. Just stop trying to understand it, as though it’s a math equation or an Ikea manual, and you’ll understand it.