There’s a famous story, in cinematic circles, about the classic 1946 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Big Sleep. Howard Hawks and his screenwriters pored over their source material, but none of them could figure out who murdered the chauffeur. How does the poor man’s death fit into the broader tableau? Perplexed, they called the author, who told the stunned screenwriters that he hadn’t any idea who plugged the driver.
The moral of the story is that it doesn’t matter who did what to whom in detective stories. Not every last twist and turn of the plot is important — it’s about mood and style. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice has inspired many a critic to recall that old Chandler gem. The film seems to have taken the lesson much farther than the old noir masters ever did. Very little is explained. Characters are introduced and then vanish into the haze. Minor figures are gunned down mysteriously, only to be forgotten as new ones are introduced. Dreamy proclamations are uttered, with seemingly no bearing on anything.
Still, a bit of plot synopsis is necessary. The movie begins, in typical noir fashion, with private eye Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) getting a visit from a femme fatale ex named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Her tale of woe is vintage Chandler, centering on internecine plotting among the upper crust. But upon tailing the real estate magnate in question, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), to a brothel, Doc is knocked unconscious and awakens to a murdered thug, a vanished femme, and the tender attentions of the LAPD. Then things start to get seriously weird.
Inherent Vice can be a frustrating movie, whether you’re a reader of the Thomas Pynchon novel or a neophyte. Many critics have expressed exasperation at the meandering plot and its innumerable dangling threads. I left the theater annoyed that Anderson didn’t explicate anything — having read the novel, I knew that Pynchon actually does explain pretty much all the plot machinations. My companion was confused and wondered whether she had fallen asleep and missed some essential detail.
But upon reflection, Anderson’s laid-back film is the better for the Chandler-esque attitude toward plot holes. Pynchon’s novels are famous for ballooning outward, seeming to grow ever longer under the gaseous influence of his taste for absurdly-named characters, semi-comic lyrics, and paranoid musings. It’s all a bit much, and the end of the novel version of Inherent Vice becomes laborious as Pynchon spells out who murdered which character. His explanation aids comprehension of the labyrinthine plot, if not enjoyment of the book.
This isn’t to say that the source material isn’t fun. Inherent Vice is mostly a diverting read, full of funny little stoner asides: “Around the time he was ready to transfer the roach to a roach clip, the phone rang again, and he had one of those brief lapses where you forget how to pick up the receiver.” Anderson’s script is mostly torn right from its pages, which is an advantage to both the source material and the film (which keeps the wit but loses much of the self-indulgence). My favorite druggie gimmick is the little pad Doc hurriedly scribbles unhelpful notes in, including such gems as “Not hallucinating” (which is thoroughly underlined) and “Something Spanish.”
Joaquin Phoenix embodies Doc with typical gusto. In every scene, he seems to be reveling in his character’s facial tics, slurry vocalisms, and other bizarre yet endearing mannerisms. He’s a joy to watch, and the rest of the cast is just as good, although their talents are employed to sometimes absurdly limited effect. Michael Kenneth Williams basically has a cameo as a black radical who...is never heard from again.
That’s the kind of thing that will ensure that Inherent Vice doesn’t sit right with a lot of people. But upon reflection, I’ve decided I actually quite liked Inherent Vice the movie (I wanted to like the novel more than I did). Now that I know what I’ll be getting into, I won’t be disappointed by what it isn’t.
The trick is to just let the thing wash over you, laugh at the jokes, and don’t fret too much (or at all) about the details. This is substantially easier if you are a fan, as Doc is, of late-night movie marathons. Or if you would have still loved watching Bacall and Bogart do their thing in The Big Sleep, even if Hawks took Chandler’s nonchalance about the chauffeur and applied it to the rest of the plot mechanics.