Bright Lights Film Journal

Peace Out and Fuck You: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix as Larry "Doc" Sportello in "Inherent Vice." (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures, Wilson Webb)

That Anderson chose to adhere so closely to the novel indicates a lack of desire to transform or elevate the work, and, regardless of whether or not this was motivated by genuine reverence, the pragmatic effect is a kind of plausible deniability that allows Anderson to engage in his most derivative filmmaking to date.

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A key image in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel, is Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a hippie detective, giving someone the V sign for peace with his fingers and then flipping his hand around to give them the finger. He does this at least twice – once to a group of FBI agents and once to a family of heroin smugglers, though I may have missed others – and, each time, the “peace out” part is sarcastic and the “fuck you” is sincere. It’s a clue to Doc’s nature as an ambiguous and ambivalent hippie with a dark side, but it also reflects the story’s setting: beachside L.A. in 1970, after the arrest of Charles Manson and just before the Kent State massacre. In other words, the end of “the Sixties,” when the utopian dream of the counterculture twisted into a big middle finger.

It’s a cute metaphor, but it’s not terribly original. Sardonic disillusionment with revolutionary ideals is familiar territory for Pynchon, and, even if it weren’t, the downfall of the hippie dream has been a well-worn narrative at least since the time the film takes place. Representing it with a flippant hand gesture is a typical Pynchon joke, but, in the context of Anderson’s adaptation and the derivative nature of his previous films, it becomes, consciously or not, an uncomfortable expression of the insecure ambivalence toward source material that weighs on his work as a whole.

Inherent Vice, Anderson’s worst film, is more or less a faithful adaptation of Pynchon’s novel, a gumshoe comedy where a pot-smoking beach bum of a private investigator tries to unravel a bizarre conspiracy involving a hotshot real estate developer, neo-Nazi bikers, the Chinese heroin trade, the FBI, the LAPD, a coalition of dentists, and other such things. Doc’s ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), a kind SoCal femme fatale, appears intermittently to reinvigorate the hero’s waning spirits, and Doc is perpetually harassed by a morose cop named “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). Some people get double-crossed and some people get shot, and there are plot threads that never get resolved. The film thinks it has an unconventional narrative style, but, aside from some tedious digressions and a general lack of focus, if you’ve ever seen a cheap old detective movie on cable late at night, you can imagine how it all goes down.

There’s a certain heroic cachet to being the first filmmaker to adapt a Pynchon novel to the screen, so it’s telling that Anderson, beating everyone to the punch, chose Inherent Voice, widely considered to be Pynchon’s least interesting and least consequential book. Why not The Crying of Lot 49, a shorter, more complex, and popular book that takes place roughly in the same time and place? Or Vineland, which Anderson had previously expressed interest in and which could conceivably benefit from Anderson’s skill with large, complicated stories? That Anderson chose to adhere so closely to the novel indicates a lack of desire to transform or elevate the work, and, regardless of whether or not this was motivated by genuine reverence, the pragmatic effect is a kind of plausible deniability that allows Anderson to engage in his most derivative filmmaking to date.

Altman, Meryl Streep, and Anderson on the set of A Prairie Home Companion

The influence of Robert Altman in Anderson’s films is obvious to the point of distraction. Anderson doesn’t deny it – he’s one of those directors that doesn’t consider a scene complete until it pays homage to one or two or ten other films – and his attachment to Altman even includes overseeing the direction of Altman’s last film, A Prairie Home Companion, when Altman was 80. Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia derive their rhizomatic structure from Altman films like Nashville and Short Cuts, and Anderson’s tendency to warp genre conventions with equal parts tragedy and dark irony (romantic comedies with Punch Drunk Love, westerns with There Will Be Blood) is imitative of Altman’s own satiric genre ventures (such as Thieves Like Us and McCabe & Mrs. Miller). There’s also his inclination to work with the same actors in ensemble casts and make films that skirt the boundary between Hollywood and independent cinema.

With his first six films, Anderson’s Altman-like qualities were general and stylistic, and they seemed to be waning as he experimented with more idiosyncratic narrative devices, but Inherent Vice is his most specifically Altman-like film to date in that it’s functionally a reworking of Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Altman’s film was a direct adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel, but the setting was changed to the early 1970s to tease out the political and satirical possibilities of watching Philip Marlowe’s (Elliot Gould) wise-cracking postwar machismo rub against the drugged-out Vietnam era Hollywood. Similarly, Inherent Vice puts a Chandleresque detective in 1970s Los Angeles, though it treats the genre as a whole as the anachronism instead of the protagonist, and, like The Long Goodbye, it doesn’t so much parody Chandler as it “updates” and riffs on him (it’s worth remembering that Chandler was himself responding comically to the influence of Dashiell Hammett, and that Chandler’s novels are funny all on their own).

Pynchon gobbles up Chandler’s novels and the film adaptations of them and repurposes them the way he’s done with a thousand other pop culture artifacts, but Pynchon’s intertextuality conceals the cynical smugness with which Anderson appropriates Altman. He’s not ripping off Altman’s film, you see; he’s adapting Pynchon. Everything that looks like it could have come from The Long Goodbye – such as Joaquin Phoenix as a down-and-out hippie version of Elliot Gould – can be justified as a cinematic allusion analogous to Pynchon’s literary allusions. Pynchon drew from Chandler, Anderson drew from Altman. Regardless of Anderson’s real opinion on Inherent Vice’s literary merits, the book provides a cozy harbor for his more regressive instincts.

Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski

Aside from The Long Goodbye, the most obvious and direct source for Inherent Vice is the Coen brothers’ cult hit The Big Lebowski. Again, a hippie comedy based on Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels set in an anachronistic Los Angeles, though the Coens double up on the anachronism by both making Marlowe a hippie and moving the hippie to the early 1990s. The relationship between The Big Lebowski and The Long Goodbye is implicit but incidental, and, in any case, the Coens have made a career of combining Hollywood genre films with their own distinct brand of ironic Jewish humor.

Backed up by the authority of a Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice reads as a dialectical response to and critique of The Big Lebowski. The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is, like Doc, a burned-out pothead version of Philip Marlowe who can hardly keep his thoughts straight, but The Big Lebowski focuses on him with greater clarity than he can focus on anything, and, aside from some standard dream sequences and silly subplots, the film is utterly conventional in its narrative construction. Inherent Vice feels like a movie as doped up as its hero, rambling and paranoid and slow-minded, implying that The Big Lebowski sold out its own countercultural audience by not respecting the strangeness of drug-infused story-telling. Joaquin Phoenix often seems as if he’s deliberately not imitating The Dude, even when a Dude-like reading of a particular line would be more natural sounding. This disconnect makes Doc’s ambivalent relationship to The Dude more significant than the Doc as a character in his own right, and he often degenerates into a tool for examining what makes The Dude such a popular character. Allusions to Altman provide further counterculture credibility to Inherent Vice’s posturing as a more authentic film, even while it’s “paying homage” to the Coens and riffing on their iconography. Peace out, Joel and Ethan, but fuck you, Coen brothers.

Whatever their other failures, Anderson’s films are often reliable as vehicles for fascinating and complex performances from popular actors, often reflecting the actor’s public persona in a transgressive way. Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia, a misogynist motivational speaker, is largely a hyperbolic caricature of his prominence as a charismatic but uncannily off-putting male movie star. Punch Drunk Love is almost entirely about how the characters Adam Sandler usually plays in his films – lovable goofballs with a fifth-grade bully’s sense of humor – would be borderline psychotic in real life. Even Daniel Day-Lewis’s much lauded performance in There Will Be Blood succeeds primarily because Day-Lewis (like Clint Eastwood in White Hunter, Black Heart) impersonates John Huston to draw attention to the disturbing fascination audiences have with eccentric, violent male celebrities.

Likewise, Phoenix’s performance as Doc seems at least partially motivated by his reputation as the loopy prankster son of a hippie family, but Phoenix, normally a wonderful actor, is awkwardly miscast. He looks at least ten years too old for the part: even disregarding details from the novel, Doc’s behavior suggests a twenty-something dopey horndog, but Phoenix’s laid-back body language and his beautiful, twisted marble face give the character an unearned world-weariness. Much of the humor depends on the irony of a young hippie trying to be Humphrey Bogart, but Doc feels more like a pathetic middle-aged lecher, unsuccessfully trying to seduce younger women and desperately clinging to his beach bum aesthetic in the age of “don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Phoenix, stifled by Doc’s complicated relationship to other characters in other films, delivers many of his lines in bizarre, unnatural ways that fail to produce a coherent human being, even a mentally scrambled one, which reduces Doc to little more than a collection of affectations.

The film’s main redeeming facet is Josh Brolin’s performance as police lieutenant “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a flat-topped flatfoot who moonlights as an extra in TV shows and is secretly trying to get revenge for the murder of his partner. He is both Doc’s nemesis and, in many ways, his closest friend, and nearly all of the film’s best scenes belong to him. Everyone calls Doc a hippie, but he’s not hip to anything. Bigfoot, a square, is the canniest character in the film, much closer to Marlowe than Doc is. The subtle hints Brolin gives of Bigfoot’s inner Machiavellian make him seem like a miniature Nixon, awkward on camera but completely aware of how everyone around him perceives him and able to exploit it for his own amoral ends. He is equally convincing as a terrifying LAPD foot soldier looking to break a hippie’s teeth and as a misunderstood family man victimized by the system, and the brilliance of Brolin’s performance is that he plays this both to the audience and to Doc, all without dropping his masterful deadpan humor.

Doc and Bigfoot (Josh Brolin)

If what Anderson was seriously interested in was successful dramaturgy, the entire film could have revolved around Doc and Bigfoot as a double act. Between the two of them, they have the makings of a single great detective, and the film drags when it deviates from their relationship. It might also have made a fascinating companion piece to Anderson’s previous film, The Master, a near masterpiece that’s less than the sum of its parts but is held together by the dual performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Unfortunately, Anderson seems more interested in using Pynchon to lend authority to his indulgent narrative meandering. The greatest scene in Inherent Vice happens near the end, when Doc watches tearfully as Bigfoot eats his marijuana stash, but its rich combination of dark pathos and surreal humor is blunted by the lack of dramatic momentum leading up to it. The overall impression is that of watching a regular movie while stoned out of your gourd. Not being a pot smoker, I can’t speak to how accurate it is as a simulation, but, compared to Altman and Pynchon (both career pot smokers), there’s something palpably phony about it. McCabe & Mrs. Miller feels like a film inspired by the experience of smoking marijuana, but Inherent Vice feels like a film meticulously designed to feel like it was. It’s a mess, but it’s a calculated mess, with none of Altman’s jazzy organic qualities or Pynchon’s free-form intertextual goofing. Anderson did something similar with Boogie Nights, a cocaine-laced film inspired not by cocaine itself but by the cocaine-inspired films of Martin Scorsese.

In the introduction to his short story collection Slow Learner, Pynchon criticized his younger self for his reliance on other texts. The five stories in that collection were written between 1958 and 1964, when Pynchon was roughly the same age Anderson was when he made his first two films, Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, and the introduction was written twenty years later, when Pynchon was roughly the same age Anderson was when he made Inherent Vice. Though Pynchon speaks specifically of prose fiction, his comments could easily apply to auteur filmmakers:

Fascinating topic, literary theft. As in the penal code, there are degrees. These range from plagiarism down to only being derivative, but all are forms of wrong procedure. If, on the other hand, you believe that nothing is original and that all writers “borrow” from “sources,” there still remains the question of credit lines or acknowledgment.

It’s tempting to argue that the obviousness of Anderson’s borrowings constitutes an implicit acknowledgment, but this doesn’t account for the macho grandstanding involved. His attempts to out-Scorsese Scorsese are typical: for instance, the opening shot of Boogie Nights is a longer version of the restaurant scene from GoodFellas; and the final shot of the film is the ending of Raging Bull taken up a notch with full-frontal male nudity. His more recent films are more prone to try to out-Huston John Huston or out-Malick Terrence Malick, but Inherent Vice recreates the stairway shooting from Taxi Driver with even crazier violence. These allusions are obvious, yes, but so too is his inability to escape their influence. Their primary function is not to help dramatize the story, but to allow Anderson an opportunity to prove himself against his influences. The ones in Inherent Vice are particularly embarrassing because Anderson gives them his signature look (i.e., long takes and dark, high-contrast photography by Robert Alswit) to claim them as his own, even when his trademark mannerist style and muted color palette are at odds with the lively, experimental subject matter.

Anderson’s masterpiece, Magnolia, was candid about its debt to Altman and was free to explore its own dramatic possibilities as a result (and, with its kooky mélange of biblical prophecy, TV culture, and mental illness, a bit Pynchonesque), but Inherent Vice seems to represent a creative rut as he retreats into esotericism for its own sake. The film is carefully crafted to seem stranger and more difficult than it really is so that it can be sold as a cult film right out of the gate, primarily to people who did not experience the counterculture firsthand, and its chief pleasure is unpacking the numerous layers of references, a process that makes you feel clever and hip for “getting it.” I enjoy watching an entertaining film geek show off as much as the next guy, but the difference between Inherent Vice and, say, the films of Quentin Tarantino or Guy Maddin is that Anderson has no coherent satiric purpose. Producing and reproducing cinephilic references for consumption by other cinephiles can be entertaining for certain audiences, I suppose, but it’s a pretentious cycle of self-congratulatory masturbation, one that denies cinema’s role as a living social art and from which I hope Anderson is able to escape.