Inherent Vice may be the most perfect translation of book to film that ever existed. Not necessarily is this due to attention to detail in character translation (although that is the case), nor is it down to a brilliant visual recreation of the imagery the book invokes (although this too is true of the film), it’s not even because of the almost word for word transition of dialogue from page to screen. No. It’s because the experience you have watching the film is identical to the one you have reading the book: You feel like you are stoned.
Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name is a drug infused 1970 set noir in which a horde of characters and ever intricate weave of subplots converge around private detective Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello. Doc represents the last of the fading hippy movement left over from the 60s as ‘The Man’ stamps his boot on the culture of free love. He has managed to carve out a successful practice in spite of (or perhaps because of) his love for all things green and smokeable. So when his ‘ex old lady’ Shasta Fay Hepworth walks through his door asking for help to solve the riddle of her missing new millionaire boyfriend, Doc sparks up a joint and takes a trip down the proverbial rabbit hole. Here he is met with a parade of ever increasing weirdness in the form of strippers, Nazis, dentists, undead saxophonists and a shady organisation/boat/cartel called The Golden Fang.
You will probably be unsurprised then to find out that much of the story places you as an audience member in a wobbly haze, where information doesn’t quite make sense and the ever growing number of characters overwhelm the senses as much as they try to misdirect and throw Doc in potential harm’s way.
Much like Pynchon, director Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t let this confusion get in the way of creating a compelling narrative, instead using it as the compelling narrative. Through all the cloudy highs comes a shed load of comedy, and a strange sense of reality – the reality of 1970 LA through the eyes of a hippy.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc with a great floaty acceptance of the world around him. I suppose you would have to say that he’s the straight man amidst all the chaos, but that would be to do him a great disservice; this mumbling spiritual comic turn is perfectly suited to Phoenix’s underused comedy chops. Also a standout (in a sea of standout turns from a truly exceptional cast) is Josh Brolin as hard-nosed LAPD detective Christian ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen – a straight laced hippy hater with dreams of becoming an actor, obsessed with sucking frozen bananas like chocolate covered wieners as he scours the city trying to stay one step ahead of Doc.
The key is to go into Inherent Vice with an open mind; like a totally empty mind man! This film is an experience, just like taking a questionable pill or smoking an unknown bulb, if you’re going to do it you just have to take the ride and not get caught up trying to make sense of any of it. If you do that, you’ll just be angry and dizzy.
Whilst this isn’t up there with Paul Thomas Anderson’s best films – when you count There Will Be Blood, The Master, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love and Boogie Nights in your filmography that’s no great insult – it is perhaps his most impressive. He has taken a book which nobody believed filmable and turned it into a thought provoking, debate raising, nostalgia soaked movie that will stay with you, demanding multiple revisits. That’s true greatness.