Published on December 12th, 2014 | by Padraic Coffey0
Inherent Vice (2014)
About two-thirds of the way through Inherent Vice, our protagonist, pot-smoking private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), sits scrawling the names of the many characters he has thus far encountered in the story, with crudely-drawn arrows linking known acquaintances and suspected collaborators. It’s a scene that, depending on the viewer, is either a perfunctory breath-catcher, or a knowing wink toward the convolutions of the plot. It may even be both. At this point in the film, keeping track of who’s who, where they are and how they relate to other people is no mean feat.
Inherent Vice is not the first detective film to have subplots fold back on themselves, stretching the audience’s attention span and even snapping it, at some points. Raymond Chandler, perhaps the most celebrated scribe of gumshoe novels, was once asked if a character in The Big Sleep had been murdered or committed suicide. This reply was that he didn’t know either. Problems arise, however, when audiences are no longer simply bewildered by what is happening on screen, but frustrated, confused and, finally, bored. And unfortunately for Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the great American filmmakers of his generation, Inherent Vice ventures a little too close the latter categorization for comfort.
The problem lies, in some part, with the source material. This is only the second Anderson film adapted from a written source – after arguably his most acclaimed film, There Will Be Blood – but the first from any director to adapt a novel by the reclusive Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon’s works are known to be ‘difficult’ at best, and utterly impenetrable at worst. In attempting to translate this world to the screen, to those unfamiliar with the novel at least, Inherent Vice doesn’t work. It may well be the case that Anderson intended Inherent Vice to be such a challenging experience, one which necessitates repeat viewings. As the director is prone to quote when discussing his source of inspiration, “The only thing better than reading Pynchon is re-reading Pynchon”.
Film, however, is not the same artform as literature. Literature is an intrinsically interpretable medium, to be ingested alone, or at least by oneself. It affords its audience their own pace. And it often benefits from a renewed acquaintance. Film is, for the most part, a shared artform, and while renewed acquaintances are fruitful for the best examples of the artform, they are a luxury and not a prerequisite. Films should make sense the first time one watches them. The best ‘mystery’ thrillers, from Chinatown to Memento, however complex, however intricate, prove this.
Another problem is in the casting. Like David Fincher’s Gone Girl, Anderson’s faithfulness to the text results in several characters whose function on the page may have seemed vital, but are merely distracting on screen. Benecio del Toro recycles his unorthodox attorney role from Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Comedic actors like Martin Short and Owen Wilson appear, though they seem out of the place in the world of Anderson. It’s clear the director intended to make a comedy, citing Zucker-Abraham-Zucker’s Police Squad! series as an inspiration.
With its raggedy lead protagonist and complex plot touching on kidnapping, an obvious precursor to Inherent Vice is the Coen brother’s The Big Lebowski. ‘Doc’ is treated with at least as much contempt by authority figures like the crew-cut detective and part-time TV actor Christian F ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornson (Josh Brolin) as Jeff Bridges was in that film. In years to come, Inherent Vice may well find a place in cult cinema comparable with that of ‘The Dude’ and co. Until then, however, Inherent Vice stands up as something totally unexpected, Paul Thomas Anderson’s first major disappointment.