It’s perhaps inevitable that Paul Thomas Anderson would be at the front of the queue when it came to adapting Thomas Pynchon for the big screen. Pynchon’s been positioned as a difficult novelist; the antithesis of the infantilism and reductive mentality that’s dominated Hollywood since the 1980s. When we think of literate American cinema we cast our eyes back to the ‘70s, the period so strongly evoked by Inherent Vice, and think of filmmakers like Robert Altman. Paul Thomas Anderson (never to be confused with mono dimensional plagiarist Paul W.S Anderson) is one of the few American directors working today who makes big, meaty movies for adults; the only man who could pass as a helmsman in Hollywood’s golden age.
It’s not for nothing that Vice has won the Robert Altman award; its critique of early ‘70s California and its oft bewildered protagonist are reminiscent of the great man’s Long Goodbye; it feels big, substantial, and like the best noirs the plot’s opaque and perhaps incidental. What matters, in genre terms, is the collision of values and cultures that comes when a P.I rubs up against society’s underbelly. On that basis, Inherent Vice is a very fine addition indeed.
Detractors will say that it’s a pastiche, that the grainy, vivid photography, naturalized dialogue (mumbling and all) and longer takes makes it a conscious throwback, but to say so is to conflate the era under glass with a filmmaker whose conscious appropriation of classic technique is a sign of rude mental health. Anderson knows that ‘70’s movies were more considered, had grit, took their time in peeling a character’s layers, and that’s a sound manifesto for any practitioner who’s serious about grown up storytelling.
The mystery underpinning Inherent Vice is presented as fragmentary and with a great deal of obfuscation. That’s indicative of a director sitting on their leading character’s shoulder, telling the story through their eyes and not making concessions for yours. Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello is a doper, a counter-cultural refugee, and as his world passes away, as the wave breaks and rolls back, to use Hunter S. Thompson’s memorable phrase, he regards the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend and her ties to a missing real estate magnate and heroin cartel, with barely disguised befuddlement. Thus we’ve invited to witness the death of free love and idealism the same way, scratching our heads, struggling to hold on to the thread. So yes, the time capsule’s empty but the vintage packaging’s a sight to behold.
Fans of Anderson will find this one of his least accessible but most thematically rich movies. The law doesn’t demarcate the vice inherent in this sumptuously realized 1970. Reagan’s privatization of mental health care bleeds into sex and imported drugs, just as Doc’s subjectivity melds with the plot. Consequently you get an acute sense of a society in transition and the war for the American soul. Doc, branded “Mr Moral Fucking Turpitude” by the wife of his nemesis, crew cut, apple pie cop Josh Brolin, just wants to get stoned and take it easy. The culture war continues of course, but with rather less style than the era Anderson somehow recreates so perfectly.