Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice"

“Paranoids are not paranoid because they’re paranoid,” Thomas Pynchon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow, “but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.” This line could easily slot into a eulogy for Larry “Doc” Sportello, the “gumsandal” hippie private eye at the heart of Inherent Vice, Pynchon’s seventh novel, recently adapted for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson. Compared to Pynchon’s other books, which serve up boundless complexity and vertiginous implication in a candy-apple coating of pot resin and screwball farce, Inherent Vice is little more than an entertainment, though in the most generous, Graham Greene sense of the term. Raymond Chandler, Cheech & Chong, and especially The Big Lebowski (1998) cast long shadows over its sunshine-noir landscape and soft-boiled characters. So do Pynchon’s earlier acid-dipped detective tales The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Vineland (1990), both of which addressed the promise and failure of the 1960s California counterculture. Historically and thematically, Inherent Vice is situated between those novels, in 1970, at the moment when Altamont had already negated Woodstock and the Manson Family trial is underway. Dark days indeed for unreconstructed freaks like Sportello.

Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin in "Inherent Vice"
Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin in "Inherent Vice"

Through that most commonplace of detective-fiction commonplaces, the novel’s investigative odyssey is set in motion by the appearance of an attractive woman asking Sportello to find a missing man. The woman is Sportello’s never-quite-recovered-from ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth; the man is Mickey Wolfmann, a brutal, unscrupulous real-estate developer (a perennial Pynchon bête noire). Mickey and Shasta were lovers, and in the months leading up to his disappearance, rumors abounded that he’d had a change of heart over his business methods and was making strange idealistic pronouncements. A resident of the fictional Gordita Beach (based on Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon lived for number of years in the ’60s), Sportello quickly allows himself to be dragooned into two other unpaid missing-person cases, seemingly unrelated, but as with everything in Pynchon’s centripetal vision, ultimately connected.

Between Sportello’s initial engagement and the novel’s resolution, if you can call it that, he encounters more diversionary characters than Chandler crammed into his entire corpus, many of whom are as irrelevant to the mechanics of the plot as the dead chauffeur in The Big Sleep, a walk-on whose murder Chandler couldn’t explain to the director of the 1946 film adaptation. Inherent Vice is a shaggy-dog story in more ways than one; it’s a rambling, anticlimactic picaresque with Scooby-Doo’s Shaggy at the wheel. It’s also, like Vineland, about the darkness that eclipsed the fluorescent visions of the psychedelic underground.

As the mid-to-late ’60s California dream of a transformative, utopian future ran up against an insurmountable dam of bourgeois conformity—Nixon’s “silent majority”—the era’s aspirations toward peace, love, and social justice washed back out to sea, never to return. Hunter S. Thompson worked the metaphor in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: > There was madness in any direction, at any hour.… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.… And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.… So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

In one of the few segments of the novel Anderson omits, Sportello follows a lead to Vegas, where he learns that Wolfmann had uncharacteristically planned to build a rent-free housing development to atone for his rapacious ways, but had since been “reprogrammed,” possibly by the Feds, and had left the project unfinished, awaiting destruction. Like Wolfmann’s fleeting crisis of conscience, capital, even if temporarily diverted by countercultural values, always returns to its eternal imperative. So it went with the ’60s.

Pynchon is a man of high intellect and low humor, his stoner japes and silly songs smuggling in or at least making palatable some rather strong medicine about America: its tycoons and warmongers; its organized crime (legal and illegal); its impenetrable corporations and shadow organizations; its hunger for Meaning in a wholly spectacular, meaning-free consumer environment—something, anything that will justify its all-important sense of exceptionalism, a notional bulwark against the rest of the world and history itself that must be preserved at all costs. Most of his novels are in some sense political, railing against the machinations of inscrutable institutional power—official and unofficial—and remote plutocrats befouling the land for personal profit.

"Under the paving-stones, the beach."
"Under the paving-stones, the beach."

The epigraph of Inherent Vice is “Under the paving-stones, the beach!”—a famous bit of radical Parisian graffiti that served as the rallying cry of the soixante-huitards. Pynchon clearly chose it for its resonance with Sportello’s hippie beach community, contrasting its casual tranquility with the “motel money murder madness” of concrete LA. But it echoes, perhaps unwittingly, one of the key lines of The Crying of Lot 49: “Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth.” For the May ’68 student revolutionaries and for Pynchon, the “beach” signifies transcendent or at least authentic meaning buried beneath the accrued artifice of consumer capitalism; it is not “only,” it is everything—the way out.

In Lot 49, reluctant “detective” Oedipa Maas, charged with settling the estate of her dead ex, a wealthy California real-estate developer of questionable morality (sound familiar?), stumbles upon what appears to be not only an underground, alternate postal system—the Tristero—but an entire shadow history of Europe and the Americas. As she amasses evidence of the Tristero’s existence, she begins to doubt her own sanity—is it merely paranoia?—but in Lot 49’s wilderness of mirrors, paranoia is actually the way out, a source of transcendent meaning, a subjective order system providing clockwork comfort in the face of a chaotic, post-Bomb, post-God, postmodern America: > Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.

Here the earth beneath the semiotic streets is not a lost Lemuria, an antimodern paradise, but “just America,” where one pictures the “furrowed” as the human batteries of The Matrix (1999). The only way Oedipa can remain above this earthly tomb (in “orbiting ecstasy,” saved not damned) and “make up for her having lost the direct, epileptic Word, the cry that might abolish the night” is to stoke her quasi-religious belief in the Tristero. “The act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie,” Oedipa concludes, “depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost.” In Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon wrote of the “lost” state of “anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.”

While everything is connected in Inherent Vice, it’s at a surface level; there’s no overarching metaphor to climb inside. Compare the baleful insinuation of the Tristero—ominously described as the Adversary and the Other by characters in Lot 49, with its implications of a centuries-old hidden narrative shading official history like a photographic negative—with the analogous conspiratorial organization in Inherent Vice, the Golden Fang, which Sportello summarizes as follows: “Let’s see—it’s a schooner that smuggles in goods. It’s a shadowy holding company. Now it’s a Southeast Asian heroin cartel. Maybe Mickey’s in on it. Wow, this Golden Fang, man—what they call many things to many folks.”

“The Stones were dirty, but the Doors were dread,” rock critic Lester Bangs wrote about one of LA’s signature ’60s bands, “and the difference is crucial, because dread is the great fact of our time.” Although dread was the great fact of LA’s counterculture in 1970—heralded by the Doors and their mentors, Love, made flesh by Charles Manson and his “Family”—Inherent Vice is merely dirty, a bong-load of fart jokes. The Tristero is an alternate world-system that may or may not exist, the reality of which would change everything; the Golden Fang is a blind man’s elephant that essentially functions as a MacGuffin—bereft of meaning let alone Meaning. Which is why Lot 49 could never be a movie and Inherent Vice could.

On paper, Anderson seemed like the ideal writer-director to adapt Inherent Vice. He has the Southern California roots and credentials; he is fond of immersing his work in period detail, as in Boogie Nights (1997), There Will Be Blood (2007), and The Master (2012); he directed a light romantic comedy (Punch-Drunk Love, 2002) that placed Adam Sandler amid fine-art tableaux (Andreas Gursky, Jeremy Blake); his father was famous on local Cleveland television as a male Elvira named Ghoulardi, a real-life Pynchonian goofball; his writing is often quite funny; I’m guessing he’s enjoyed a joint or three.

The film is remarkably faithful to the novel—much of the dialogue is verbatim, and Anderson trims only one significant segment (the Vegas trip) from the awfully busy plot. One could say he adapted the novel with loving care and exceedingly high reverence for its source material. The casting is impeccable, with Joaquin Phoenix delivering a glazed, empathetic performance as Sportello. Katherine Waterston looks and feels right as Shasta Fay, the femme fatale in a Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt. Reese Witherspoon brings her nervy, schoolmarm energy to Deputy D.A. and occasional Sportello lover Penny Kimball. Martin Short has a welcome cameo as druggy dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, recalling Austin Powers, and Josh Brolin completely owns “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, the flat-topped, hippie-hating LAPD detective who serves as Sportello’s nemesis and goad throughout the narrative.

Like The Master, Anderson’s postwar bromance loosely based on the early days of Scientology, Inherent Vice begins and ends with shots of the sea, and its film stock is processed to look slightly faded, like an old Kodachrome print from the period left in the drawer of a beach cottage for too many endless summers. The camerawork is assured without being flashy—there are a few trademark Anderson tracking shots, but they’re not dazzling as in his earlier films. If you’re not in the business of clocking such things, you might miss them entirely. Halfway through, it struck me that it didn’t really feel like an Anderson movie; he seemed to be so concerned with realizing Pynchon’s vision that he neglected some of his own. In truth, I started to hear Pynchon and Anderson from behind the screen, saying to me over and over again something a dyspeptic Bob Dylan croaked at a BBC interviewer sometime in the ’80s, when the singer was in a holding pattern in purgatory, personally and professionally, “I’m not gonna say anything that you’re gonna get any revelations about—not gonna happen.”

If The Crying of Lot 49 and The Big Lebowski didn’t exist (let alone Pynchon’s best novels and Anderson’s previous films), Inherent Vice—book and movie—might have been a revelation, an innovative, counterintuitive mingling of hard-boiled noir and head-shop humor. But as they do exist and are brilliant, more’s the pity for Inherent Vice. You’ll get neither the frisson of eye-widening fear you experience in great conspiracy thrillers nor the math-class giggles that attend at least three-quarters of The Big Lebowski. It’s an entertaining movie with a breakout comic performance by Josh Brolin. And that’s OK. Perhaps it would be best to arrive stoned.


Andrew Hultkrans is the author of Forever Changes (Bloomsbury, 2003), the second volume in the 33 1/3 series of books on classic albums.