I’m not educated enough to have an intelligent conversation about Inherent Vice. I’m smart enough, but to seriously wrestle with what Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s book is trying to do and say would require me to have A) Seen more of P. T. Anderson’s films, or B) Read more (read: any) of Pynchon’s books (perhaps even the source material itself), or C) Know more about the era in which the film takes place.
And so it’s taken me well over a week to write this review, because I simply didn’t know what to say. I wanted to deconstruct the film in some meaningful way, but I don’t feel qualified to do so.
What I can do, however, is consider just what it means to see (and generally enjoy) a film that I don’t understand.
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 52nd New York Film Festival. It is being reposted to coincide with the film’s wide theatrical release.]
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Release Date: December 12th, 2014 (Limited); January 9th, 2015 (Wide)
Inherent Vice is odd. As I watched it, I assumed I was missing something. I didn’t really connect with it or what I thought it might be trying to do, but at the same time I did feel like I understood basically what was going on. I actually thought to myself, “I’m pretty sure I understand this more than I think I do,” at least on a superficial level. But perhaps I didn’t.
The basic narrative seems pretty simple (down to its bare essentials: a stoner private investigator is trying to find his ex-girlfriend and gets mixed up in some bad things), but beyond that things start to go in all kinds of bizarre directions. And the film doesn’t necessarily hit the points it needed to. Press notes fill in the blanks, and the number of copies of Pynchon’s novel that surrounded me in the theater made me feel like I had missed some vital memo. But then maybe it’s not my fault that I didn’t understand the film, but Paul Thomas Anderson’s.
And here we get to the question of adaptation: What is the purpose of taking a thing and bringing it to a new medium? Is it just to delight fans of the original work, or is it to bring that original work to a new audience that can fall in love with it? If it were the former, anecdotal evidence would lead me to believe it’s a success… but if he was going for the latter, it’s a failure.
But I don’t know what Paul Thomas Anderson was going for, and I’m not even sure he does. Anderson has compared Inherent Vice to Zucker Brothers comedies (Airplane, Naked Gun, etc.) and I can’t help but wonder if Paul Thomas Anderson has ever seen a Zucker Bros. film, or his own most recent effort. To be sure, Inherent Vice is a comedy, but it’s nothing like what the Zucker Bros. did. Their films featured a gag in nearly every single shot (if not multiple), and at their best there was barely a moment where you weren’t laughing at what they’d done. Inherent Vice made me laugh, and it made most of the other people in the theater laugh, but it’s no laugh riot. Not even close. Long moments of serious intensity and drama may be punctuated by a joke, but I can’t even begin to comprehend what would make him think of that comparison. (Other comedies that it’s compared to, such as The Long Goodbye, I haven’t seen and cannot speak to.)
Then again, maybe there was a version of Inherent Vice with more laughs. At the ludicrously large press conference that followed our screening (twelve people), it was pretty clear that a lot of the cast wasn’t entirely sure what they had done. They talked about how much they enjoyed improvising and the “chaos” of the set. (Others disagreed with the fundamental premise of chaos. As is so often the case, the truth likely lies somewhere in between.) They said that they tried a bunch of different things and they trusted that in the editing room everything would be worked out.
And that interests me more than anything the film actually did, because it means that if someone else had been given the exact same footage, we could have literally had an entirely different film. The performances are so uniformly strong that little tweaks to delivery and cadence could have made a world of difference in the way it all played out. Many characters are only in a few scenes (some just one), and the plethora of long takes means that it probably wasn’t all that hard to work around different versions of any individual performance.
I can’t help but wonder if I would have liked another version of the film more. I certainly like The Naked Gun more than I liked Inherent Vice. (Which in and of itself says a lot about a lot of things.)
Everyone has a bunch of lists of different books they need to read, movies they need to see, music they need to hear, and etc. The work of Thomas Pynchon in general has been on that list for some time. Inherent Vice has been described more than once as Pynchon-lite – whatever that means – and thus a good starting point into his work. (Many of those myriad copies around me in the theater were apparently breezed through.) So maybe I’ll read it down the line, and maybe it will retroactively make me appreciate the work that went into adapting a novel from a writer whose books are often deemed “unfilmable.” But I shouldn’t be required to read an adaptation to really grasp what a film is trying to do. An adaptation is not necessarily a replacement of a source material the way a remake might be, but it needs to stand on its own. Inherent Vice doesn’t really do that.
But it’s not just that I haven’t read Pynchon. Perhaps my critical mind just doesn’t go deep enough. And perhaps my lack of knowledge of 1971 America exacerbated that issue. It’s something that didn’t occur to me until after the credits had rolled. I asked Hubert Vigilla (of our Gone Girl analysis discussion fame) what he thought of it, and he said something to the effect of “I think I’ll like it more after I’ve thought more about the way it uses teeth to represent the decay of consumerism in the late 1960s.”
And the only thing I could say was, “Oh.” And perhaps, “Might you be overthinking it?”
And that inability to respond was the moment when I realized that I really had missed something and that this wasn’t a film that could appeal to a broader audience on anything more than that superficial level.
But here’s something true: that superficial level is very well-crafted, and no matter what your level of education or Pynchon literacy, you will almost definitely like Inherent Vice at least a little bit. Paul Thomas Anderson is undoubtedly a supremely talented filmmaker, and the ensemble he’s pulled together for the film is uniformly excellent. If you don’t think about what the film is trying to say or its narrative failings, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a truly fantastic film (if a bit long). But it’s not actually fantastic; it’s just good. And there is nothing wrong with being good. But while I haven’t seen everything Anderson has done, I can also say it’s the least compelling of the films that I’ve seen.
And so I’ve met the film halfway. I may not really understand it, and I definitely think it failed in its attempt at bringing Pynchon’s story to a new audience in a way that is inherently compelling, but I know that so many others (who are better-read than I am) have really liked it that lambasting it for my own ignorance seems even more ignorant.
But even so, I know that a lot of people who aren’t critics by hobby or trade will be put off by what Anderson has made. When you’re laughing and enjoying the craft, Inherent Vice is an easy film to like, but as soon as it gets into its esoteric meanderings, a lot of people will turn off. This will be a polarizing film, and unfortunately the debate surrounding it will be marred by pretension.
Though perhaps that’s fitting.