I read Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Inherent Vice, last summer. It’s the third of his novels I’ve read, along with The Crying of Lot 49 and Mason & Dixon, and I’m still not exactly a convert. Inherent Vice seemed rambling and hoary to me, although I liked the concept of Raymond Chandler in Hippieland and the focus on the dark underbelly of the ’60s American counterculture. Indeed, by the end of the novel I was beginning to see depths to what Pynchon was up to that I hadn’t noticed at first, and I reread the first 50 pages and found them richer than I had the first time. The final scene of driving on the freeway in the fog seemed like a perfect image for the American Dream.
Now comes Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation, which tries to squeeze Pynchon’s rambling series of druggy digressions into a two and a half hour timeframe. While I enjoyed bits and pieces of it, ultimately I came away feeling dissatisfied. However, this is probably a film that I need to see a second time before I can really dig into it. One thing I would say is that the other PTA film I’ve seen, The Master, benefited from focusing on two very strong characters, whereas Inherent Vice suffers from both a protagonist, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who isn’t very interesting (possibly an intentional cypher at the heart of an indefinite mystery) and a large cast of characters who never really come into focus at all.
The film is getting a lot of comparison to Robert Altman’s private eye pisstake, The Long Goodbye (1973), and that might be another problem for me, because I don’t care for the Altman film at all, despite the screenplay by Leigh Brackett. There’s a shambolic quality to both The Long Goodbye and Inherent Vice that doesn’t seem to work for me. Altman feels more improvised than Anderson, but both result in a sense of awkward silliness that doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe the childishness is trying to tell us that all of this serious business is just play pretend by people who are essentially lost, I don’t know.
That said, there were many moments in Inherent Vice that did work for me, and the uncomfortable sex scene between Doc and his ex, Shasta, was one. It felt awful in ways that seemed pretty realistic to me. And maybe that’s what the film is up to: an attempt to deflate any romantic pretensions and reveal the ugliness beneath the dreams. Maybe I resist such deflations. The sexual dimension of the film ranges from the juvenile to the sordid. There’s not much beauty to be found, and what beauty there is soon reveals itself to be sordid. In the end, maybe I’m just not the right audience for such a bleak view.