Paul Thomas Anderson’s efforts to stay true to the novel Inherent Vice leave this film noir floundering in the dark.

By Christos Tsiolkas.

Feeling the Pynchon in Anderson’s Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix, left, Josh Brolin, centre, in Inherent Vice.
Joaquin Phoenix, left, Josh Brolin, centre, in Inherent Vice.

In this story

Criticism, not unlike journalism, is meant to be objective. It is meant to be scrupulously fair and rigorous, to not allow personal enmities and prejudices to contaminate the judgements pronounced. But again, like journalism, the ideal is most often gleaned in its breach.

I am tentative about reviewing Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice, because I don’t like Pynchon’s prose. I appreciate his skill and talent with language, those punning gymnastic sentences and paragraphs that are deliriously clever; but each sentence and paragraph doesn’t seem to connect to the one before it or the one that comes next. I think he is exhausting to read, not because he is difficult but because the writing is so hollow. I turn page after page wanting to find story, character, empathy, maybe some insight: but it’s all postmodern blather, at times exquisite, yet meaningless. 

I don’t like Pynchon but I do like Anderson’s films. He is an American filmmaker who consciously works within the epic form, who is obsessed with history: the history of his nation but also film history itself, how our understanding of the actual past is inseparable from how it has been mythologised in cinema. In 1997’s Boogie Nights the sexual movements of the ’70s are essayed through the medium of pornography, with the technological shift of porn from celluloid to video used as a metaphor for the betrayal of liberatory potential.

His 2012 film The Master explores the spiritual transcendentalism that has consistently erupted and animated United States culture since the foundation of that nation state. In The Master he situates the birth of the New Age in the existential crisis of the postwar period, with Joaquin Phoenix’s body, channelling the physicality of James Dean and early Brando, the macho bravado of characters from Norman Mailer and Henry Miller, as the embodiment of the conflict between urbanisation and the pastoral. I take his work seriously and that’s why I want to review a film that I believe is a major disappointment.

The majority of the film’s reviewers have sung from the same chorus book, noting how Anderson has chosen to adapt an “unfilmable” novel. I suspect most haven’t read any Pynchon, because one positive thing I can say about the film is that it is remarkably faithful to his writing. The film-noir genre trappings serve as a basis for tangents on popular culture, on the betrayal of the hippie Summer of Love and on how marijuana and drugs have become embedded in Californian culture. Joaquin Phoenix is Larry “Doc” Sportello, a permanently stoned private investigator, whose ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) entangles him in a plot revolving around the kidnapping of a rich realtor, played by Eric Roberts. The plots of film noir were often ludicrous – think of The Big Sleep, Out of the Past or The Maltese Falcon – and in this film that incoherence is played for laughs, a punning cinephile’s in-joke. The story itself doesn’t matter: it functions as a jumping-off point for Sportello to descend into an increasingly paranoid drug-fucked nether world.

The characters are deliberately stereotypical: the evildoers are literally Nazis and there is even an Asian hooker with a heart of gold. I think the intention is for us to enjoy the irony of these infantile conceptions, but the lack of any emotional resonance in the writing makes the joke wear thin very quickly. Inherent Vice takes place in the Los Angeles of the early 1970s and though the surface accoutrements are all in place – the mutton-chop sideburns Phoenix wears, the gay-clone physiques and uniforms of the cops, the dirty funk and woozy Laurel Canyon rock on the soundtrack – the actors can’t find anything in their characters to convey a sense of the period. It becomes a rollcall of cameos – Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Donovan, etc – none of whom leave any impression.

At more than two-and-a-half hours running length it is an indulgent film. There is an interesting tension at work, of how the undergraduate, self-reflexive dopester’s humour is at odds with a striving to convey something more profound about the corruption of both the city of LA and of the idealism of the 1960s. Anderson’s appreciation for early ’70s cinema has always been evident in his work, but that love has never been mere homage or pastiche. Inherent Vice consciously evokes Robert Altman’s great revisionist film noir of the early ’70s, The Long Goodbye, in the lovely washed-out cinematography of Robert Elswit and in having an ineffectual PI as its hero. But it’s the wrong film to reference, it runs counter to Pynchon and to the deliberate ironic distancing of Anderson’s conception.

Altman’s take on Chandler’s Marlowe was daringly contemporary, it too was infused with irony and distance, but it conveyed a genuine melancholy at how the tough-guy morality at the heart of film noir was no longer applicable to an American social contract torn apart by Vietnam and civil rights. Amorality has become the norm and Elliott Gould’s Marlowe is the fool in thinking it otherwise. It is clear that there are shadings of this conception in Doc Sportello, but the cartoonish hippie-hating cops and absurd Nazi foes have no relevance to us. Quentin Tarantino might have been a better choice of director for this material. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of genre and film culture, including its lesser canonical history, and he knows how to excavate the genuinely perverse and troubling in adolescent drug culture. He might have wisely set it in modern-day Los Angeles. As it is, Inherent Vice feels bogged down by its period. Anderson has found nothing new to say about the 1970s and that’s why it feels so clichéd, why its film references seem so wrongheaded and superficial.

There are two pleasures to be had, however. At the screening I went to, a voice called out from the audience, “Is that real?”, when a shot of the downtown LA skyscape filled the screen. I understood the woman’s surprise and delight. Anderson has found the urban beauty of this sprawling metropolis, he is increasingly confident of his framing and the use of widescreen. The city has more presence than the performers. Except whenever Josh Brolin is on screen. He plays an old-school detective, “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, whose relationship with Phoenix’s Doc carries undertones of the father-son conflicts that are constant in Anderson’s work. The character is a trifle, another cutout paranoid cliché. But Brolin plays Bjornsen for the stupid man he is while at the same time persuading us that this is a not very intelligent man trying to make sense of an incomprehensible shifting world. He doesn’t take the role too seriously and that allows us to enjoy the comedy between himself and Phoenix. When they are together it is the only time Phoenix remains disciplined as an actor. The singer Joanna Newsom also manages to be affecting in a small role.

Paul Thomas Anderson has already directed an “unfilmable” novel, his adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, which became the 2007 film There Will Be Blood. Anderson found a daring way to make relevant a novel that in its early-20th-century social realism and in its distilling of early psychoanalysis could easily be rendered crude and archaic to a contemporary audience. He shot the film as if making a silent film with sound. There Will Be Blood anchored us to the period, but its formal choices gave us both distance and a sense of wonder, as if we were once again at the birth of cinema, and this allowed us to critically and emotionally engage with the savage, foundational myths of American capitalism. At his best he is a daring and intoxicating filmmaker, and in his best works there is a genuine humanist’s ethics at play. He makes us care about deluded porn models, to empathise with the sadism of a messianic preacher. That a week after Inherent Vice the only memories that remain of the film are two images of buildings, an elegant panning shot of a sailboat sailing across a harbour, tells me I am right to care about him as a director. But in being faithful to his Pynchon he has gutted his best instincts as a filmmaker.

1 . Arts diary

• FAMILY  Toys through Time

Museum of Sydney, until August 9

• OPERA  Opera for the Earth

White House, Melbourne, March 28

• VISUAL ART  The Photograph and Australia 

Art Gallery of New South Wales, until June 8

• MUSIC   Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Mischa Maisky

QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane, April 2

2 . Last chance

• VISUAL ART  Hossein Valamanesh

Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide, until March 29

• VISUAL ART  Anne Frank, Let Me Be Myself

National Jewish Memorial Centre, Canberra, until March 31

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 28, 2015 as "Feeling the Pynchon".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Damascus and 7½. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

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