Getting incoherency right is a hard job, but that’s exactly what Paul Thomas Anderson pulls off in his delicious adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. To further the disorientation a bit, some of the explanatory details from Pynchon’s packed prose had to be cut, like why private investigator Doc operates out of a dentist’s office. This added confusion makes the film even better, in my opinion. When you’ve entered a twisted, paranoid world like this, exposition can detract from the absurd brilliance.
The phrase “inherent vice” itself is beautiful, even more so considering its meaning: the idea of an object deteriorating on its own without any external forces involved. Being human is, therefore, an inherent vice. Lingo from insurance, an industry built on terror and paperwork, laden with unexpected poetry. Acts of God, hazard, and grace punctuate the yucky mess of it.
Set in 1970, Pynchon and Anderson mine the haze of American culture trying to get their bearings in a world set loose by the 60s and threatened by endless webs of conspiracy. Charles Manson is a looming figure in the film, a fresh symbol of cults, mania, and hippie movements gone sour. Free love’s just another dream that can be manipulated by maniacs.
It’s hard to know who or what to trust, or even to trust how things are connected. There are story fragments at every turn, which leads to a delirious and satisfying confusion, a hard-to-come-by tonic. When many plots go haywire, it’s not necessarily the intention of the creators, in this case it is a very well executed intention, and that’s why it works. It’s reflective of what it’s like to be a human being, with this complex brain system and powers of observation, yet severely limited in scope and processes. The greatest limitation of all, the eclipse of the human experience, of course, are the emotional veils whipping across our sight and clouding our vision. Inherent Vice is about this more than it is about conspiracy, it’s about that endless trail of loss tangling up our feet. Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc is a doddering mess, stumbling into brilliance through his drug-stupor, and we are stimulated and stupefied along with him.
Of course, Thomas Pynchon has conspired to turn himself into a giant mystery, eschewing interviews or appearance of any kind for decades. Having output, but no presence, stirs something in us. We can’t help but be compelled. However, there are rumors from the cast that not only was Pynchon involved in this film project, he actually had a brief cameo in it. Hardly anyone’s seen the 77-year-old’s face since he was a young dude, so it might be hard to notice him flicker in a shot. Still, according to Josh Brolin, he is there, somewhere. “I don’t think anybody knew… He came on as the kind of mercurial iconoclast he is. He stayed in the corner,” the actor has said about his time on set.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson refuses to acknowledge Pynchon’s involvement, but Joaquin insists he was fairly hands-on with the adaptation, or, at least, words-on. “I know that they talked a lot,” Joaquin said in a recent interview. “Sometimes, he’d say, ‘Oh, I talked to Pynchon last night, and we were talking, he thought maybe it could be like this or like that.’ It was pretty amazing, because it seemed like he was very active in the process through Paul. It seemed like they talked often and he would make suggestions or talk about how to condense three scenes into one.”