The prospect of adapting a Thomas Pynchon novel for the screen sounds a bit like trying to make a movie out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Oh sure, The Garden of Earthly Delights offers plenty to inspire the would-be adaptor: sublime images, side-splitting jokes, and even a metaphysically robust vision of Good and Evil. But how would you go about putting those things before a camera, swapping out real bodies for dabs of paint? How would you pick out a linear structure from that chaos, something that a viewer could conceivably follow without time to let their eye roam at its own pace? And wouldn’t it be tough to budget the CGI for that eggshell creature? The painting is an overwhelming experience. Yet the language it speaks in is entirely its own—to translate it would be to destroy it.
The same thing goes, arguably, for Pynchon’s greatest novels. Inherent Vice is not one of Pynchon’s greatest novels, and this goes a long way towards explaining why Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film is just about the best Pynchon movie imaginable. Like the Coen Brothers did with No Country For Old Men, Anderson has elected to adapt a lesser work by a great writer, one that redeploys thematic tropes and character types from the author’s previous novels within a more familiar genre framework. Inherent Vice is a detective novel in the Raymond Chandler mode, one that sprawls and zigzags in Pynchon’s usual manner, but without the ineluctable madness of Gravity’s Rainbow or V. While not exactly breaking new ground, the book finds plenty of intrigue in one of Pynchon’s pet subjects, the California of the 1960s and its legacy. On the page, this makes for an entertaining but not particularly revelatory watering-down of a potent literary sensibility. As material for adaptation, however, it proves an ideal entryway into the Pynchon universe.
The plot of Inherent Vice, book and film, is delightful, but almost beside the point. Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a beach bum PI riding the wake of the psychedelic 60s when his ex-flame Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) shows up on his doorstep with a load of trouble. It seems she’s been involved with LA real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), whose wife now plans to have him committed to a sanatorium in order to get her hands on his fortune. A parade of Pynchonian eccentrics follows, including Sauncho Smilax, a maritime lawyer (Benicio Del Toro); Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, a coked-up, lecherous dentist (Martin Short); and Burke Stodger, an old Hollywood Red turned anti-Communist fanatic (Jack Kelly). Two figures emerge to join Doc and Shasta in the foreground: Lt. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), the cop-cum-actor whose antipathy towards Doc has something of a spousal flavor; and Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a surf-sax player, heroin addict, and reluctant anti-radical informant trapped in an underworld that only Doc can free him from. Somehow all these people are mysteriously connected to something called the Golden Fang, which could be a boat, a tax dodge for dentists, or an international heroin cartel.
This may sound rather jumbled, and it’s true that the narrative is easier to taxonomize than to recount. Yet Anderson has managed to stretch a riveting noir through line across all of this sprawl. The material has enough forward momentum to shape the movie’s digressions, curlicues, and pratfalls into something resembling a three-act structure. In order to appreciate Anderson’s full accomplishment, however, it might be necessary to take a step back and view the film as a landscape. More than any other aspect of his work, it’s the geographical and social world of Pynchon’s fiction that Inherent Vice most brilliantly succeeds in capturing.
One of the most distinctive features of novels like Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland is the way that they capture the embeddedness of human lives. Readers who go looking for psychological depth in the usual places often come away from these books disappointed by what seems like flat characterization. This strikes me as the result of a rather stunted method of reading, the kind that approaches literature by dividing it up into conquerable regions of theme, plot, setting, etc. Pynchon doesn’t throw away the structural outline of the realist novel, but he rarely hesitates to color outside the lines when it suits him. That means that in his literary universe, things that we usually think of as external to us are often shaded by the inner experience of Pynchon’s characters, and that inner experience is in turn affected (but not determined) by external structures and phenomena. It’s not uncommon for the most affecting moments of one of his books to be identified with a minor character, an animal, or even an inanimate object. The fears, hopes, and desires of Pynchon’s characters are all projected onto and refracted through the things of the world, staging their conflicts in a shared physical space. This means that his novels don’t treat emotional life as a purely private matter, instead demonstrating the many ways in which the personal and the political are entwined.
Anderson captures this aspect of Pynchon’s writing beautifully. In a flashback scene set to Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past,” Doc remembers an idyllic afternoon from his time with Shasta. The couple attempts to track down a mysterious dope dealer in the midst of a downpour, only to find an empty lot and take shelter in a doorway, sober but in love. Upon returning to the site alone, Doc finds that the lot has been filled by a monstrosity of L.A. architecture in the shape of – wouldn’t you know it – a Golden Fang. The empty lot stands for a kind of utopia, the pure potentiality that people like Doc and Shasta felt in the 1960s, something often referred to expansively as love. Now it’s been replaced by an image of overweening, inscrutable power, a looming presence that leaves no life untouched. The symbolism would be trite if not for the complexity of the network of meaning in which it’s embedded, one in which what’s “out there” in the social world forms a core portion of Doc’s emotional experience.
If Inherent Vice were merely a successful visual analogue to its source material, it would still be an incredible achievement. Anderson and his collaborators have managed to channel through a comparatively undercooked novel the richness of Pynchon’s prose and paranoia, his humor and melancholy. The film goes beyond its source material, though, in the way it gives faces and voices to the novel’s comic smudges. Given the way Pynchon’s characters tend to blur into their surroundings, it’s hard to imagine how a real life human being might go about embodying one of them. Yet Anderson turns this problem into his movie’s greatest strength. I’ve been describing the film as a vast canvas, a utopia landscape whose own energies have curdled it into something terrifying. Yet its most vivid moments are more like portraiture: an ex-addict’s calcium-drained smile, the paranoid glance of a father who can’t go home to his daughter, the desperate embrace of two ex-lovers who know there’s no going back. At the center of it all sways Phoenix, clouded in a haze of sideburn and dope. It’s a great comic performance, worthy of The Dude comparisons it will inevitably attract, but it’s more than that too. An unreliable witness to an era that can never be relived, Phoenix’s Doc may be the closest we ever get to an image of the famously camera-shy Pynchon himself. There may be some holes in Doc’s memory, but his face won’t let us forget the sadness, as well as the promise, of the time when this country was almost rejuvenated by something called love.