Adapting Pynchon’s Inherent Vice

Critics respond to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 film, the first adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel

Peter Bradshaw (The Guardian)

Uncorrected Proof of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice

After a publishing career of more than 50 years, Thomas Pynchon has finally allowed one of his novels to be filmed. Inherent Vice, which has been adapted and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is all about a stoner private detective named Larry “Doc” Sportello in 1970 southern California, called in by an ex-girlfriend to investigate the sinister disappearance of her married lover. It is an occult mystery upon which Doc attempts to shed light using the torch he still carries for her.

The resulting movie is a delirious triumph: a stylish-squared meeting of creative minds, a swirl of hypnosis and symbiosis, with Pynchon’s prose partly assigned to a narrating character and partly diversified into funky dialogue exchanges. Each enigmatic narrative development is a twist of the psychedelic kaleidoscope.


It is a sunlit noir, with all the restraint and coherence of a Marx brothers movie. (One fleeting shot discloses the existence of a street called Gummo Marx Way, and surely the real-life LA will now wish to introduce this, perhaps at the same time as Anderson gets his Hollywood Walk of Fame star.) Doc himself is a dropout cousin to the heroes of Polanski’s Chinatown and Altman’s The Long Goodbye – more these figures, I think, than the Dude from the Coens’ The Big Lebowski. The plot is increasingly chaotic and elusive and arbitrary, but no more so than The Big Sleep. It doesn’t add up, but it doesn’t quite not add up, either. Inherent Vice largely does without the skeleton of narrative; instead it is pure flesh, pure sinew, pure tendon, pure texture.

Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice (2014)

At times, the movie will appear to allude to Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, with that suspect property company despoiling the deserts of southern California, and at other times Doc is like Captain Willard in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, heading far upriver and steeling himself for a succession of hostile figures, with no guarantee of any solution to the mystery.

But despite points of comparison and influences, what really comes across is the film’s sheer, exhilarating differentness. Anderson is broadly faithful to the novel, though he jettisons its section set in Las Vegas and excises most of its cinephile references – although he keeps in a line about “Jimmy Wong Howe” – and, perhaps sadly, we lose Pynchon’s surreal anglophile allusions to George Formby and Maggie Smith. Yet even with something as ostensibly conventional as a literary adaptation, this movie is so distinct from everything and everyone else, and watching it is like encountering a higher order of film-making, more advanced and evolved. The mystery of Doc’s lost love has a freaky power, but also delicacy, melancholy and charm. I can’t wait to see it again. [Read More]

Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin play adversaries in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. Credit: Everett/Rex Features

Robbie Collin (The Telegraph)

The confusion, of course, is the whole idea. For his seventh film and, in my view, sixth stupendous, five-star knockout on the trot, Paul Thomas Anderson has taken Thomas Pynchon’s 2007 novel about the death of the hippie counterculture and turned it, reasonably faithfully, into a surreally funny, anxious and beautiful film noir. It follows in the shuffling footsteps of Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski – three great Los Angeles-set detective stories in which a man out of time finds himself drifting through a mystery he can never hope to comprehend, let alone solve.

Thomas Pynchon

Its 1970 setting plants it in the same time period as the Penn and Altman films, which is no coincidence. It’s the year of the Manson Family trial, the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the drug-related deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. As Doc discovers through a thickening fog of paranoia, the world can no longer be trusted to add up. “Bad craziness”, as Hunter S Thompson called it in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was taking over. And just as he did with There Will Be Blood and The Master, Anderson has come up with the perfect film for the historical moment.

Perhaps he’s also found his perfect leading man. In The Master, Phoenix was a Brando-like thug with a curled lip and an aggressively awkward, hands-on-hips posture that made him look like a psychopathic deckchair. But here, he’s far subtler, and lets the (wonderful, rightly Oscar-nominated) costumes do the heavy lifting: an embroidered denim shirt, a tatty green army field jacket, a straw hat covering his wilted afro – and, when he’s going incognito, a dark orange double-breasted suit. It’s the kind of quietly dazzling performance that rarely wins awards but will be adoringly dissected and quoted for decades – much as Elliott Gould’s work in The Long Goodbye is now. [Read More]

Anthony Lane (The New Yorker)

The new Paul Thomas Anderson film, “Inherent Vice,” comes from the 2009 novel of that name, by Thomas Pynchon. The adaptation alone deserves an award for valor. Nobody has ever turned a Pynchon book into a movie before, for the same reason that nobody has managed to cram the New York Philharmonic into a Ford Focus. If you really have a mind to write a screenplay based on “Gravity’s Rainbow” (1973), go right ahead, but be warned: you won’t have a mind by the end of it. So, what possessed Anderson to approach “Inherent Vice”?

Well, of all Pynchon’s novels, it may be the most gag-infested. It also maintains his high standard of social indignation, taunting “that endless middle-class cycle of choices that are no choices at all”—ouch!—and making you wonder, as always, how a doomsayer of his stripe should have proved such good company for so long. Above all, “Inherent Vice” brings us Pynchon the plotter at his tightest. True, that’s not saying much, but at least you can tease out noodles of story line here and there. In the soup, from the start, is Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private investigator living in the South Bay area of Los Angeles County. He is visited by an ex-girlfriend named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who is now entwined with a hot-shot property developer, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Mickey has an English wife, and she has a lover, too, and together they are making plans for Mickey. So says Shasta, who then disappears, as does Mickey, by which time Doc has been knocked out cold, at the Chick Planet massage parlor. He wakes up beside a corpse: one of Mickey’s bodyguards. In a separate subplot—which turns out, naturally, not to be separate at all—Doc is hired by Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), a former junkie with false choppers, to find her husband, Coy (Owen Wilson), missing and presumed not dead.

Jacquin Phoenix on the set of Inherent Vice with director Paul Thomas Anderson


What does that imagination feed on? Easy: paranoia and marijuana, both freely available—indeed, interchangeable—in 1970, when “Inherent Vice” is set. In those days, the film suggests, you could be present and correct and yet seem freakily AWOL, with your body in the room but your spirit out of town, the result being that everyone, not just Doc, becomes a private dick of sorts, constantly cross-checking on other people’s existence. (One stoner, who is meant to be deceased, remarks of old friends, “Even when I was alive, they didn’t know it was me.”) As Doc, Joaquin Phoenix is so befogged with weed that he seems to gust along inside his own personal weather system, although he’s impressively out-doped by Owen Wilson, with his narrow-eyed, inward stare, not to mention those long and lazy vowels. Meanwhile, from the pack of speakers shuffling through the book, the one that Anderson, in his wittiest move, picks to provide the voice-over for the film is Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), an astrologer who hangs out at the beach. Believe me, narrators do not come more unreliable than that.

What Anderson does not do is stuff “Inherent Vice” with wads of period detail. It’s much quieter on the senses than “American Hustle,” say, and, for a major studio production, it’s amazingly low on establishing shots. The opening minutes, dispensing with larger views, plant us squarely in Phoenix’s face, and a lot of the action unfolds in his darting gaze. Closeups carry the burden of seventies whimsy (I fast became obsessed with Doc’s telephone, as green as a scoop of mint chocolate chip), whereas the background clutter is relatively spare. We get a glimpse of a hula hoop, but only for a second, through a doorway. Of course, there are images that crackle and pop; the toffee-brown suit that Doc wears to Wolfmann’s house could have been tailored in another galaxy, while his muttonchops are of a bushiness not witnessed on the male cheek since the mid-Victorian age, when Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin started neglecting their razors. By and large, though, Anderson doesn’t treat the era as a funny foreign land. He wants it to drift toward our own time, hinting—and this is true to Pynchon—that the befuddlement of ordinary folk has hardly changed while “the ancient forces of greed and fear” have, if anything, tightened their clutch upon our lives. [Read More]

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