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Why Inherent Vice Is an Underrated Noir Masterpiece

Why Inherent Vice Is an Underrated Noir Masterpiece

Sometimes It’s Groovy to Be Insane

Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is a joint lit-up by Hunter S. Thompson, loaded with sprinkles of Chinatown, Withnail and I, and The Big Lebowski, and with the question “Does it ever end?” scrawled on the rolling paper. Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic adaptation released in 2014 is Pynchon-lite to what is already considered Pynchon-lite in his venerated bibliography. Of literary writers, Pynchon’s essence and prose are one of the hardest to duplicate and transition to the screen; his magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, frequently appears on lists of unadaptable books. In spite of the challenge, P.T. Anderson accomplishes a remarkable feat in transitioning this book to screen. Trimming and truncating this world featuring more twists and turns than the Spaghetti Junction, this adaption is a streamlined experience of the novel that accomplishes carrying the self-same gonzo dynamism and zonked-out locomotion of its source material. For that feat alone, this neo-noir mystery set in the tumultuous tail-end of the 60s is a beautiful exhibition of Americana – and beyond that, it is an underrated piece of film noir that got lost in a year of heavy hitter releases, but may be the best feature of that year.

An Acid Tab into the Mouth of Time.

Gordita Beach, 1970 – a fictitious Californian beach town where Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a pot-smoking private eye, investigates a kidnapping case brought to him by his “ex-old lady” Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) that involves her missing land developer boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Throughout his investigation, Doc tangles and tangos with Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a “Renaissance cop” with a palpable disdain for the free-love generation. Encountering clues involving cults, dentistry, the drug trade, and politics, Wolfmann’s disappearance soon suggests a conspiracy involving the FBI and an underworld syndicate known as the Golden Fang. Alongside that, Doc also agrees to search for Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a reportedly deceased saxophone player embroiled in COINTELPRO-esque espionage that seems tied to the Wolfmann case.

Visually and atmospherically, Inherent Vice is the vibe of a vintage Venice Beach postcard but with a faded blur that obscures the image. In this case, that is a conspiracy which is smoke manifesting from the smoldering fire of corruption and turpitude. To pinpoint an aspect of this production that accentuates this soul most prominently is a disservice to the cast and crew. Cast, cinematography, costume, music, set design, etc., can’t be isolated and played off in a game of favorites as they blend together and bolster each other to probe the alter-ego of California during a tempestuous transitionary period. Listening to Kyu Sakamoto’s ‘Sukiyaki’ or witnessing an instance of superimposed ethereal imagery all hold equal weight – parts in a time machine that act to drive you back to the past like the waves ebbing on a sandy beach.

Doc May Not Be a “Do-Gooder” but He’s Done Good

Caught up in this pot smoke haze of bygone times, of the era and personally, is Doc Sportello, the dogged and compassionate stoner P.I. From the onset, Shasta keys the audience in that he is an inherently good guy. Though he appears to be acting selfishly, we get the sense that there are more layers to who he is, even if he’s not acting upon them. Doc’s investigatory abilities might be limited, but his empathy is displayed throughout the film, especially when Coy Harlingen comes into the fold. However, as a narrative eyepiece, whether or not Doc is a reliable narrator is doubtful. Interactions with Shasta and scenes with Sortilège (Joanna Newsome) can have a dreamy, soft focus to them; some feel like a memory that his mind rewinds and plays like a cassette and others like daydreams manifesting themselves into Doc’s reality. In the book and film, Doc connects dots and constructs narratives, wandering in this thick fog of grey where you can’t see your own hands in front of you. The fog that Doc wades through is akin to TV static, flicking through channels only for a confused jumble of pixels and noise to accost you and disrupt your chakras. Watching Doc’s relationship operate in this climate of ambivalence and uncertainty is fascinating: whether it’s seeing Shasta and Doc, two people that coasted on different karmic thermals until they disconnected utterly, or the parallel between Doc and Bigfoot Bjornsen – kindred spirits that are two sides of the same cosmic coin.

Why Inherent Vice Is an Underrated Noir Masterpiece

From a Kaleidoscope Into a Tunnel

Adapting the source material was going to take a lot of work. Still, it is highly evident that P.T. Anderson appreciates the material, because the book’s spirit remains intact. Two and a half hours is a lengthy runtime, but even the adaptation had to pick and choose to streamline it for audiences. Consequently, informative sequences – for example, Doc’s dreams or acid trips and a fascinating series of events in Las Vegas – are omitted. Characters like Puck Beaverton (Keith Jardine) are reduced to a bit parts or dropped from the narrative, such as Doc’s former colleague Fritz. But Anderson still captures the goofiness and the atmosphere of the ‘Third Great Awakening’ era of 1970s America, paranoia-ridden where free love is dead and buried.

In the novel, Sortilège, a friend of Doc’s, plays a minor role; however, in the adaptation, Anderson utilizes her as the film’s ethereal narrator: a fluttery voice telling Doc’s story and echoing his befuddlement creates this esoteric ambiance as Doc navigates this shifting maze of conspiracy. Pynchon describes her as being: “…in touch with invisible forces and could diagnose and solve all manner of problems, emotional and physical.” To its benefit as well, Anderson adheres to Pynchon’s prose like gospel, which helps to punch up the script, further enhanced by expert performances like Phoenix’s and keeping portions of text untouched and verbatim.

Lost in Its Own Fog?

What’s the story, then? Why is it considered underrated? That could be down to several factors: in a year with critical darlings like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, among others, it got lost in the fray. Then another blow came when it – unfairly – lost out to The Imitation Game at the 87th Academy Awards for best-adapted screenplay. And while critically, the film received commendation, it only grossed $14.7 million on an estimated $20 million budget. For audiences, it is a challenging film for the average moviegoer and it’s not a surprise that many came out of it scratching their heads and admitting defeat without attempting to engage with it. The first time around, it may appear to be a kaleidoscopic journey through a pot-smoke haze, but dig a little deeper and one finds the universal themes of realpolitik, inequality, altruism, and more. In a way, it feels like what Withnail and I was for Britain for that same period, or what The Grapes of Wrath was looking at America in the 1930s. In the novel, Doc perfectly encapsulates this attitude in regard to a movie he had watched:

“He had seen this zombie picture a couple of hundred times and still got confused by the ending, so he spent the news hour rolling joints to help him through, especially with the calypso singing, but somehow despite his best efforts fell asleep in the middle, as so often before.”

Inherent Vice, the book, reads as though it were intended to be a movie, as it’s believed that Pynchon wrote the book to be made into a movie, and it’s hard to believe that one could do a better job translating the book as Anderson did. Pynchon’s novel is a phantasmagoria committed to paper, Anderson’s film is a transcription of that groovy spectrum through a camera lens. Watch the film, read the book or preferably both – just enjoy the ride. As Doc says to Shasta, “Don’t worry. Thinking comes later.”

Inherent Vice is available on Blu-ray and can be streamed on HBO Max.

Why Inherent Vice Is an Underrated Noir Masterpiece

Inherent Vice (2014) Official Trailer

Source: Dead Talk Live

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Author

Adam Z. Matthews
Adam Matthews is a writer at heart who wants to share his love of the peculiar and strange with others. Having completed an MFA in Creative Writing from the American College Dublin and an M.Phil in Screenwriting from Trinity College Dublin, he hopes to carve a path to making storytelling his career. If he were to be reincarnated, he would want to be a 1940s LA private investigator.