When I wrote about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice a while ago, on the basis of a first impression at the New York Film Festival, I said that I liked the movie but needed to watch it again to decide how much, and why. Now that the film is in general release, I’ve gone back to it and can say wholeheartedly that you, too, ought to see this picture twice. Inherent Vice is that ambitious, while pretending very convincingly to be a mere genre parody; it has that much to say to our present moment, while enveloping itself in bygone clouds of patchouli and marijuana. Besides, you’ll need the first viewing just to get your bearings. Inherent Vice is also that flagrantly problematic.
Nothing less could be expected of a film that borrows not only its characters, plot and language from a Thomas Pynchon novel but also its worldview. Atmospheric details are faithful to the book, down to the make and model of someone’s car or the song that’s playing in a pizza joint. Dialogue is faithful, too, with entire exchanges reproduced verbatim. But most faithful of all is the mood of retrospective wonder and regret about Los Angeles toward the end of the hippie era (after the Manson murders, before Nixon’s re-election), when interlocking high-level interests (apprehensible by those on the pavement mostly as dark, spooky forces) had not yet finished corrupting whatever was hopeful and alive in music, dope and love—a time when it was still possible to imagine, as the film’s narrator puts it, that the American future would mercifully fail to transpire.
A great theme; a great setting. So what, you may ask, could be so problematic? Start with the protagonist, Larry “Doc” Sportello, the noble private eye in Pynchon’s teasing equivalent of a Raymond Chandler novel. Played by Joaquin Phoenix with barely concealed glee and a swath of sideburns that might have been cultivated with Miracle-Gro, Doc is a valiant but woozy investigator of complex criminal conspiracies—a man so attuned to clues of all sorts that he sometimes needs to scratch the words “paranoia alert” into his dime-store detective notebook, so stoned that he can be sent off on a bum steer by a Ouija board. With Doc as your point-of-view character, plot exposition is maddening enough to make you chew through the side of your popcorn box.
Then, when it comes to suggesting the meaning of these crazy events, the film makes itself doubly problematic by spelling things out in voiceover. The only excuse Anderson gives for so brazenly trashing the doctrine of “show, don’t tell” is to promote one of the novel’s incidental characters into the job of narrator. He localizes Pynchon’s authorial omniscience and sometimes vatic prose in Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), letting her explain, both on camera and off, everything from the dynamics of Doc’s relationship with his former girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) to the sad history of Los Angeles real-estate development. But now that she’s been put to this use, is Sortilège still a character, or has she become a mirage? Her voice remains dreamy, her smile otherworldly, whether she is dabbling in divination and astrology or supplying Doc with hard facts. In keeping with her name, which translates as “charm” or “spell,” she can also vanish from Doc’s side in the middle of a scene, leaving you better informed but perhaps more puzzled.