America's Existential Crises in Paul Thomas Anderson's Adaptation of 'Inherent Vice'

Jason Sperb

As in The Master, the ocean haunts the protagonist in this film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, but it’s a haunting of a different kind.

Inherent Vice

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon
Year: 2014

Paul Thomas Anderson reportedly referred to Punch Drunk Love (2002) as an “art house Adam Sandler film”, which could be read as the director’s attempt to tell his version of the frat boy stories of arrested development usually associated with the mega-star comedian. Part of that film’s aesthetic breakthrough in the director’s career was in how that process of adaptation, as it were, managed to transcend the “source” material to create something utterly new: a film which, love it or hate it, didn’t have the same derivative feel that arguably marred his earlier movies.

When I first heard that Warner Bros. was funding Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2014)—an amusing shaggy dog detective story set amidst the social eccentricities of early ‘70s California—I was surprised. A commercially suspect filmmaker (whose closest brush with such high-profile productions was his brief “blank check” phase with New Line in the late ‘90s) taking on the work of a notoriously inaccessible author, seemed like the last project a major Hollywood studio would be interested in. Perhaps the era of the tent-pole, transmedia blockbuster franchise, which largely sustains the industry these days, has the upside of freeing up studios to take a relatively small gamble on a few would-be critical darlings. If that’s the case, one can at least hope the trend continues.

This age old question of art vs. commerce seems to nicely capture Inherent Vice’s frustrations. It’s a beautifully shot and edited film, with wonderful moments and striking performances. Yet it feels like a conventional private eye story, where even the densest parts of the narrative (of which there are many) are conveyed in the reliable spirit of neo-noir’s usual twists, turns and other forms of misdirection. The promotional blitz advertises it as “Part surf noir, part psychedelic romp – all Thomas Pynchon”—and that right there may be the film’s problem. In trying to create the first faithful adaptation of the author’s work (itself an admirable task), Anderson perhaps compromised the freedom of exploration and reflection that, among other things, may have allowed Upton Sinclair’s Oil to morph into something as strangely, perfectly, horrifying beautiful as There Will Be Blood (2007).

There’s certainly an affinity between Inherent Vice and the earlier Daniel Day-Lewis epic, but the connection resides not in the central character of “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), an amusingly and frustratingly passive protagonist in equal measures. Instead, it’s found in Josh Brolin’s wonderfully grotesque caricature of the “straight” cop who’s always one false step away from insanity (and who, as with characters in both Punch Drunk Love and Boogie Nights, seems to have some kind of anger problem connected to the verbal abuse of female members of his family). Like Plainview, Freddie Quells, Barry Egan and Frank TJ Mackey, Brolin’s “Bigfoot” Bjornson is another Anderson exercise in controlled rage, a portrait of unrelenting intensity, which struggles to direct its energy in constructive directions. He is also, like so many memorable Anderson characters, someone who craves the fleeting glory of being a marginal celebrity in the shadows of Hollywood. This is the kind of character that the filmmaker has consistently done so well, almost to the point of cliché, and one is left to wonder what vision of early ‘70s California counterculture could have been created had the story focused on Bigfoot’s journey. Perhaps kind of perverse reimagining of Dragnet, instead of Doc?

Indeed, Doc’s journey is interesting. Like Freddie and Lancaster in The Master, his quest is specifically one of “meaning” (in this regard, a good match for neo-noir), as in what’s the purpose to life, which has been a common Anderson theme stretching at least as far back to Dirk Diggler’s “One special thing” in Boogie Nights and the falling frogs of Magnolia. Doc’s nonsensical scribbling about facts and names during his investigation seems only a step removed from the improvised gibberish of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster. Yet the intensity and commitment, however misguided, in the dueling protagonists of The Master filled the void of meaninglessness in the wake of World War II’s unspeakable horrors.

In Inherent Vice, however, “Doc” just seems to react, rather than drive the narrative as they (and Plainview) did earlier. In this regard, there’s an affinity with Dirk Diggler—an empty personality who seems mostly oblivious to room for growth and transformation in his journey (the anti -“hero’s quest”) from naïve high school kid to ignorant porn star. Granted, this cluelessness in Inherent Vice allows for endlessly amusing expressions on Phoenix’s face, who’s clearly having a lot of fun with the part, but it does little to immerse us in his deeper motivations which, as with his backstory with Shasta (Katherine Waterson, a brave performance in the face of difficult material), is given too little attention to really allow the audience to care about their destinies.

Yet the focus on Doc’s point-of-view—while necessary for both the film’s pot haze narrative and adaptation fidelity—also raises another interesting specter. Inherent Vice is the first Anderson film to so closely follow one protagonist, and yet still retain the patchy feel of a large ensemble. Typically, those movies follow either a group (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) or one, perhaps two, primary protagonists (Hard Eight, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood and The Master). Usually, it’s the latter structure that works out better; as Anderson works with an actor and takes the time to develop one character at length rather than superficially and at times unevenly skimming many at once. Yet in Inherent Vice, the extensive attention paid to Doc does little to make him a more compelling character. He remains a mostly empty vessel, guiding us from one bizarre encounter to another. Even the core plot of his romantic entanglement with Shasta feels inconsequential. Those are two people who don’t belong together, but they can’t seem to find anything else to do with themselves in the meantime.

Like The Master, the historical subtext in Inherent Vice is largely unspoken, yet it’s key to appreciating its narrative twists and thematic significance. The Master tackled the existential crises—the need for a purpose to life—which overcame the world in the wake of war. The film’s narrative difficulties in a sense reflected the difficulties of comprehension for the time in which it was set. Inherent Vice, on the other hand, deals with that same crisis at the other end of the post-war period; America threw itself into unprecedented production, prosperity and leisure, “rebuilding” the nation in the vast promises of suburbia. This is a subtext Inherent Vice only briefly scratches.

Such attempts at remaking one’s identity (yet another common Anderson trope) failed to yield any more lasting satisfaction by the ‘70s than Dodd’s pseudo-Scientology cult had—a void that some try unsuccessfully to fill with substance abuse. As with Freddie’s alcoholism in The Master, and Claudia’s coke snorting in Magnolia, the recourse to marijuana becomes another kind of addiction that distracts from the endlessly unsatisfying, “square” consumer culture of post-WWII America. Indeed, Magnolia could be seen as Inherent Vice’s spiritual, more pretentious, sequel—another existential melodrama in LA suburbia in the shadows of the facades and surfaces of a rapidly proliferating televisual media culture. Bigfoot’s dream of celebrity status is the same shallow pursuit that haunts Dirk, Dodd and even “quiz kid” Donnie Smith (Magnolia).

Finally, as with The Master, boats and oceans are a key motif. In the earlier film, they symbolized a world caught in the “wake” of WWII, but also the arbitrary causes in life to which we attach ourselves amidst the terrifying uncertainty of open waters. In Inherent Vice, however, the ocean is always there, but that same sense of a possible journey is always removed from Doc’s immediate point-of-view—brought to him only through the mediation of postcards and second hand reports.

Doc is, perhaps, someone who’s given up on that quest. He’s resigned to hide in his apartment and stare off into that same frontier, which had by then already closed. (In this regard, perhaps the opening moments of Inherent Vice become a melancholic call back to the failed quests of The Master). Yet that passivity, while thematically in keeping with earlier films, is less narratively engaging than the misguided egomaniacs in Anderson’s other movies, wherein they go out and—mainly for the worse—try to remake the world in their own image.

Jason Sperb is the author of Blossoms and Blood

Postmodern Media Culture and the Films of Paul Thomas Anderson (University of Texas Press)

Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2018 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.