Some life insurance policies bet against your dying in an accidental way wholly disconnected from your normal occupation—killed by an unknown assailant, freakishly electrocuted, or stumbling from the back of a moving train—by making these the grounds for twice the payout, twice the reward: in short, a “double indemnity.” This premise was the basis for the classic film noir, directed by Billy Wilder (1946) with screenwriting by Raymond Chandler and based on James M. Cain’s novella, in which the sinister wiles of a greedy wife (Barbara Stanwyck) ensnare an insurance salesman (Fred MacMurray) in a scheme to kill her husband. Made to look like a common accident, the murder will pay double indemnity. Insurance fraud and its comeuppance become a rich metaphor for the individual’s grasping beyond the acceptable limits of the American Dream, and Double Indemnity tells us that our desires must be tempered according to the common good.
Keeping the odds in their favor, an insurance company might bet another way, against your success, by supposing that your care, your skill, and your intentions are no match for the natural instability of a product—eggs will crack, celluloid deteriorates, and paper crumbles with age. The “inherent vice” exclusion, commonly used in marine law, though just as essential in library and cinematic archives, keeps a company safe against payouts for uncontrollable self-destruction. In Thomas Pynchon’s excellent novel Inherent Vice (2009) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s equally excellent new film adaptation, the collapse of 1960s radical idealism and the triumph of late capitalism have made American life in 1970 completely unstable. As in the America of Wilder, Cain, and Chandler, we are all, according to Pynchon and Anderson, inherently vicious.
Inherent Vice adopts the mode of hardboiled noir, with familiar figures that include a dogged, down-on-his-luck shamus, an authoritarian cop, a slinky femme fatale, and a web of intrigue more tangled than any right-minded person could sort out. When William Faulkner was adapting The Big Sleep for the screen, he contacted the novel’s author Raymond Chandler to confess that he couldn’t solve one of the story’s murders. Chandler purportedly admitted that he couldn’t either. This insoluble, shaggy-dog logic is taken as a kind of gospel in Pynchon’s novel, and though Anderson shaves away several layers of plot complication and a host of additional characters, the film often remains as befuddling as its source material. What was in classic noir the reveling in a moody style wrought by cynicism becomes for Pynchon a moral claim, an indictment of the corruption and neo-fascism of establishment culture and a lament for the drug-addled failure of the hippie revolution.
Instead of fedoras, trench coats, low-key lighting, and shadows, Anderson gives us shaggy hair, embroidered tunics, sun-bleached rooms, and fog. The setting is Gordita Beach, California, a fictional town presumably based on Manhattan Beach where Pynchon is believed to have lived in the late 1960s. That town name—slangy Spanish for “little fatty”—is the first of literally dozens of goofy, ambiguously punny names that fill Inherent Vice, much like they do every Pynchon novel. Lifted from Henry Fielding’s eighteenth-century fiction and transplanted into the twentieth, this naming device gives an arch surrealism to the proceedings. The private eye, Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), is a permanently stoned doper who meets clients in the spare room of a clinic, typically trading tokes with them as he scratches stray words in his notebook. The cop is Christian Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a luggish LAPD detective called “Bigfoot” due to his signature move with suspects’ doorframes, who forges an unlikely bond with Doc, both abusive and dependent. The case is set in motion, per the genre’s requirements, by the appearance of a gorgeous, dangerous woman in need. Leggy, and noticeably taller than Doc, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, in a breakout role), who was briefly Doc’s “old lady,” is usually clad in nothing but bikini bottoms and a faded Country Joe & the Fish t-shirt. The shirt references a group remembered, if at all, for their songs against the Vietnam War. Doc’s fuzzy memories of his halcyon days with Shasta—barefoot in the rain, looking for another dope score, feeling ever so briefly alive—are, like the shirt, just another fading memory of vibrant promises that never panned out. She has gone on to worse things: some skeezy tryst with a destructive real-estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) whose wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) and lover Riggs Warbling (Andrew Simpson) have approached Shasta to get in on a scam against Mickey. Shasta needs help, and, for her, Doc plunges into an underworld teeming with interconnected groups including neo-Nazis, Black Panthers, drug cartels, the LAPD, right-wing vigilantes, the FBI, and a swarm of junkies, quacks, snitches, hookers, and hoods—all played by a star-studded cast that includes Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, and (for once, not the most stoned-looking person in the cast) Owen Wilson. As in many of Pynchon’s masterpieces, the ambiguities, uncertainties, coincidences, and plot wrinkles may be stimulated less by real external factors than by endemic paranoia and THC.
Anyone going to Anderson’s film expecting a conventional mystery story or a rambunctious 1970s period piece like American Hustle is likely to be disappointed. Those mind-twisting plot convolutions and myriad characters are part of the issue, but perhaps more off-putting is the way Anderson dwells in the strange mood he finds through adapting Pynchon’s dialogue so faithfully while never allowing the tone to become campy. It is not that we don’t get some resolution in the caper, and it is not that the art direction fails to deliver a wealth of hilariously hideous costumes, crazy hair, and—a signature of the novel—organic-meets-psychedelic food. There are even a few riveting sequences set to the likes of vintage Neil Young and Jonny Greenwood originals. But, unlike Anderson’s Boogie Nights, where bravura techniques and garish images could sustain us, or unlike the Coens’ The Big Lebowski—the clear spiritual ancestor of Inherent Vice—where sheer quirkiness and quotability provide a lift, Anderson’s film places more demands upon the viewer to find pleasure in feeling lost.
One of Doc’s only true allies is his lawyer Sauncho Smilax, Esq. (del Toro), whose specialty in marine law is a running gag that connects him with the “inherent vice” of the title. The pair survey a mysterious boat that may be connected to the elusive Golden Fang organization, which itself may be a Chinese crime syndicate or a government-backed heroin operation or a conglomerate of shady dentists. Hits from a particularly potent strain of weed and lunch beginning with “tequila zombies” only heighten Doc’s paranoia around one of Pynchon’s perennial questions: are the patterns we find in the world actually there, or are they a matter of our mind’s devising? The unsettling mood of the entire film urges its viewers into a similar state of questioning, a mind-fogging unease for the sober.
Anderson is the first filmmaker to attempt a Pynchon adaptation, and that he succeeds as well as he does is a remarkable achievement given the seeming inadaptability of the novels. Pynchon’s oeuvre can be divided along lines of difficulty. Michiko Kakutani said that Inherent Vice counted as “Pynchon Lite,” and this novel, along with The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Vineland (1990), are clearly more accessible than his massive monster-pieces like Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Mason & Dixon (1997), and Against the Day (2006), all of which have been deemed by turns masterful, impenetrable, and exhausting. Inherent Vice shares with early Pynchon Lite works the California locale and mystery novel structure, but it succeeds more than the others at satisfying readers’ expectations for interesting characterization and plot resolution while still exploring Pynchon’s pet interests in conspiracy theories, quantum physics, and Z-grade pop culture. The National Book Award-winning Gravity’s Rainbow is unquestionably a more substantial novel, but Inherent Vice yields its pleasures more immediately and is, for my money, the best introduction to Pynchon’s work.
If anyone were equipped to do this adaptation, Paul Thomas Anderson seems the likeliest choice. His films have often exploited noir-ish styles with unusual settings, from his first feature Hard Eight (1996), a relatively conventional crime caper about casino hustlers, to his most recent film The Master (2012), in which an alcoholic veteran (again, Joaquin Phoenix) returns from combat in the Second World War and involves himself in a suspicious new “religion” called The Cause. Boogie Nights (1997), Anderson’s first major hit, has been frequently mentioned as a sibling to Inherent Vice, with its seedy 1970s underworld—the porn industry, in this case—and splashy vision of the American Dream gone wrong. These films, along with Magnolia (1999) and There Will Be Blood (2007), are rich, deeply critical explorations of treasured American values like believing in your dreams and success coming from hard work. The vicious Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in There Will Be Blood is nothing if not committed to entrepreneurial excellence, and his pillaging for oil wealth puts him in league with other leaders of American industry. With Inherent Vice, Anderson gives us a view from the underside, where the loser outsiders are the last best hope for a better world, and the outlook is bleak. The epigraph to Pynchon’s novel, which also appears after the end credits in Anderson’s film, is a statement from the 1968 Paris riots: “Under the paving-stones, the beach!” Doc’s beach house, established immediately in the opening shot, is a last-ditch refuge, a place where utter failure might just be the key to some secret success in the longed-for collapse of industrial power.
Unlike much of Anderson’s work which revels in attention-grabbing film techniques, Inherent Vice is more restrained and far more talky. Most scenes involve two people in dialogue, and the skillfulness of the filmmaking appears in the many details that fill each shot, the little actions of characters in soft-focus or paraphernalia in the set. Some critics have noted that multiple viewings are deeply rewarding in order to catch these details, and this seems likely, not just because there are many elements in each shot but because of the way Anderson frames his two-person exchanges. The film’s final shot is a long take on two of our characters, providing what is as close as we get to a conclusive ending, and each of their faces reflects a journey of emotions too complex to follow simultaneously. The strange tone achieved through this technique is reminiscent of his film Punch-Drunk Love (2002), which made inscrutable, conflicted emotions the central motif. Throughout his filmography to date, Anderson finds ways to make studio-backed, star-driven movies with an astonishing complexity and unconventionality.
In the Chicago Reader, Ben Sachs observed that throughout the film the stoner culture all seems washed up and tattered, while “straight” society like the cops, FBI agents, and DA’s office has a steely air of clear triumph. Doc’s sometimes girlfriend, Deputy DA Penny Kimball (Witherspoon, in a witty casting decision that reunites the duo from Walk the Line), is appealing for her ability to cross over into Doc’s world. Her tidy hair, crisp suit, and desk beneath a grinning photo of Nixon, pits her mainstream self against her attraction to the pizza, reefers, and dirty feet of Doc’s beach place. This transgression is also what makes Bigfoot something more than a simple nemesis for Doc. His façade shows more cracks, such as his love affair with frozen chocolate bananas reminiscent of his deceased partner, his tumblers of Scotch poured by his eight-year-old son, his bullying of Japanese chefs to make him pancakes, and a late scene that brings new gusto to the concept of marijuana “munchies.” For the most part, the straights have won, even if the conspiracies turn out to be delusions and the drug culture mostly devastation; the hope for fundamental change is all but vanished. There are little glimmers, like a reunion between ex-junkie lovers and the addition of Joanna Newsom as a winsome narrator, but the shifting facial expressions in the last shot leave it up to the individual viewer to determine the film’s optimism. Thomas Jones, reviewing the novel in the London Review of Books, noted that at the time of the book’s bleak ending, with the triumph of paranoia, corporate-governmental hegemony, and crypto-fascism, “among the voters who put Nixon in the White House and Reagan in the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento, Thomas Pynchon is secluded at his typewriter, at work on Gravity’s Rainbow.” This comment echoes the moment in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties where a former soldier asks James Joyce what he did during the Great War, and Joyce replies: “I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?” Perhaps a similar move is being made by Pynchon. When all else in America is going to hell, at least there are geniuses toiling away at mountains of well-placed words, nudging the world in better directions from somewhere behind the thick of a purple haze.
Charles Andrews is Associate Professor of English at Whitworth University.