People know Thomas Pynchon by a lot of arguable facts: his tricky (impossibly complex) books, from V. to Bleeding Edge; his rumor-provoking flight from fame into perfect paranoid anonymity; and, of course, the widespread critical belief that he is our greatest living American novelist. Maybe the best ever. (These things may be discussed among you, starting now, dear readers.) But what was always assumed to be absolute truth was the sheer impossibility of turning any of his novels into a movie. Everyone believed it would be a hopeless quest to film Pynchon’s surreal breaks with realism, his high style and low jinks, his sophisticated discussions of entropy made flesh with unforgettably wacko characters like Benny Profane, Tyrone Slothrop, or Oedipa Maas.
Against all expectations, Paul Thomas Anderson has pulled it off. This ecstatically good version of Inherent Vice not only captures Pynchon’s dominant moods and most of his ideas but also works as a piece of unexpectedly fine and unconventional filmmaking. You might argue Anderson succeeds because Inherent Vice is the least good of all Pynchon’s books — Hitchcock always said you couldn’t make a great movie from a great book. Still, this crazy chronicle of a druggy hippie sleuth named Doc Sportello, who lives in the bohemian quarters of 1970 Gordita (Manhattan) Beach and travels through diverse demimondes of Southern California, seems somehow improved by Anderson’s thoughtful, gorgeous ideas.
Everything in this film is shot up-close and invasive. It’s the opposite of a 3-D movie, and there’s nary an establishing shot to guide us, though it’s surprisingly clear where we are most of the time. Anderson uses a grainy film stock that recalls cheaply made 1960s exploitation movies; the mode is strictly Roger Corman. It helps to know the book, yet we always feel the gist of the scene, even when the voices get muffled and spoken over. Gradually, the story clarifies and the conversational patter becomes more obviously defined by its detective-movie wisecracking. Then halfway through, it dawns on you that you’re watching a psychedelic version of Raymond Chandler and listening to Pynchon’s high-low poetic dialogue, made up of cosmic insights and quick telling vulgarities. Pynchon, it turns out, writes a lot like the Coen brothers.
But Anderson surpasses the Coens with his ingenious casting. Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc with a nice range that’s part clown, part knight errant, and Josh Brolin is thoroughly despicable as the bad lieutenant Bigfoot Bjornsen. But the women are truly spectacular, from psych folk goddess Joanna Newsom as Sortilège to Katherine Waterston, who plays a femme fatale who is more like a life force. Eric Roberts, Maya Rudolph, and Martin Short are among the wackier cameos.
Maybe Inherent Vice isn’t for everybody. The story, after all, is pure Pynchon, which means a quest doomed by the overwhelming complexities of just living in the world. But Anderson makes it funny throughout and, best of all, touched with a hippie’s sense of idealism, self-indulgence, and mercy. Most of the contact high you will get from this movie comes from Jonny Greenwood’s music choices, which vacillate between moody squawks and Neil Young songs. Inherent Vice is hallucinated fun rolled into one big bomber of Philip Marlowe and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. It’s two and a half hours of cinema that rolls by like fast sets on a day of perfect surf.