Inherent Vice: Year’s Most Original and Bizarre Studio Movie

Since the 1960s, author Thomas Pynchon has been celebrated as the one resonant American literary voice that tapped directly into the multifaceted, recombined chaos of modern life.

Starting with his classic novels V., The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow, he plunged readers into vastly intricate parallel universes that mirrored the beauty, perversity, technological audacity, political futility, comic absurdity and unyielding complexity of the post World War II era.

Like all of Pynchon’s work, Inherent Vice forged its own world.  But this one was a sui generis Los Angeles possessed of the spirit of sex, drugs and rock and roll.  He honed in on the essence of 1970 as a kind of tipping point, that moment when the chilled, misfit tribes of the coast—hippies, freaks, surfers, bikers, dopers, mystics, rockers—suddenly found themselves in collision with the global cartels, sprawling consumerism, faux spirituality, bulldozed neighborhoods and political and personal paranoia that would soon become part of the everyday American fabric.

In the midst of this world, Pynchon placed beach-dwelling, pot-smoking L.A. private eye Doc Sportello, who finds himself making the last stand of a certain dazed breed of American dreamer tilting at the forces of greed, fear and disintegration just before the Age of Aquarius became myth.

Pynchon playfully merged the cultures of gumshoe and hippie, with Doc Sportello delivering the shamus’s snappy dialogue through a weed-induced mellow, then merged that with his long-lived concerns with the invisible forces within American society and the idea of American destiny.

Most of all, he lit up the book with so many zingy lines, characters, jokes and music that Rolling Stone called it a “majestic summary of everything that makes [Pynchon] a uniquely huge American voice. It has the moral fury that’s fueled his work from the start—his ferociously batshit compassion for America and the lost tribes who wander through it.”

But could Pynchon’s verbal electricity and polychromatic way of seeing the world finally be translated for the first time to the screen?  Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, who has carved out his own tradition of vividly cinematic stories of dreamers and seekers, decided to take a crack.

He began writing while he was still at work on “The Master,” and it was a process.  Initially, he adapted the entire novel sentence-by-sentence so that he could work with the whole slew of characters, plot twists and lines of dialogue in their entirety.

At the same time, he was thinking about how to visually capture the more purely visceral experience of taking in a Pynchon novel.  “My best experiences reading his books have been when I allow them to wash over me—when you don’t expect anything, don’t know anything…just surrender and ride along the waves he creates,” comments Anderson.  “You can’t summarize it and sometimes it’s just out of reach to define what it is but you feel it.”

Most of all, Anderson wanted to do justice not only to the full labyrinth of crime and corruption that Doc Sportello falls into but to evoke the roots of Pynchon’s fascination with the `60s. “Pynchon’s plot mechanics are complicated, sure, but beneath it all is something simple,” he concludes.  “It’s looking at the past and hoping things can get better tomorrow.  What could be simpler than that? Isn’t it what we all want?”

“The one idea I came up with was to utilize a supporting character, Sortilège, and employ her as the narrator,” explains Anderson.  “She helps us follow the story, and we can squeeze in some jokes and some nice Pynchon passages through this device, hopefully, without cheating too much.”

Like the book, the filmmaking would delve into the state of paranoia itself—whether drug-induced or life-induced—in all its mix of comedy, insight and danger.  Says Anderson of Pynchon’s fascination with paranoia on both an individual and societal level, “Pynchon himself said it best in Gravity’s Rainbow, ‘Paranoids are not paranoid because they’re paranoid but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, into paranoid situations.’”

He adds, “Paranoia is also very, very fun to film—people and noises and creeping around corners—it’s all very cinematic.  And Joaquin does paranoid very well.”

Anderson first began talking with Joaquin Phoenix about taking the role of Doc Sportello after shooting “The Master.”

“Joaquin and I tried to dig into the book as deeply as we could; everything, all the time, came back to the book,” says Anderson.  “It would make us laugh and constantly kept delivering new material.  It’s so dense that there was no chance you could retain it all, but we tried.”

Sporting fluffy muttonchops and various shaggy stages of a ‘fro, Phoenix was modeled to some degree after a 1970s-era Neil Young.  It’s a look contrasted by the knife-edged crew-cut of his chief law enforcement rival: the badass, civil rights-violating LAPD officer and sensitive “Adam-12” extra Bigfoot Bjornsen, a role explored by Josh Brolin in both its comedic and human aspects.

“Bigfoot’s an asshole, but Josh figured a way to make it funny and a little sad,” says Anderson.  “There’s a nice line from the book that describes Bigfoot as ‘possessed with melancholy.’  But he’s also a dickhead.”

The instigator of Doc’s quest—his sensuous ex-flame Shasta, who arrives back in his life out of the blue, “looking just like she swore she’d never look”—is portrayed by Katherine Waterston in her first major screen role.  “She’s gorgeous and talented, what more could you hope for?” says Anderson of Waterston.  “It was also nice to work with someone who’s a new face to audiences, who hasn’t got a lot of screen mileage, which helps keep her mysterious.”

As Doc investigates Shasta’s disappearance, he wanders through a prismatic maze of characters from backgrounds high and low.  They include Martin Short as the nefarious Dr. Blatnoyd, Owen Wilson as regretful undercover snitch Coy Harlingen, Jena Malone as reformed doper Hope Harlingen, Benicio Del Toro as maritime lawyer Sauncho Smilax, Reese Witherspoon as alluringly straight Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball, Eric Roberts as real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann, Michael Kenneth Williams as ex-con activist Tariq Khalil, Martin Donovan as lawyer Crocker Fenway, Sasha Pieterse as troublesome Japonica Fenway, Hong Chau as Chick Planet’s Jade, Jordan Christian Hearn as Doc’s burnout cohort Denis, and Jeannie Berlin as Doc’s Aunt Reet.

“It was a dream scenario,” comments Anderson.  “Great parts, big and small.   Thankfully, schedules worked out and this dream team of players was available.  All of them, from Jena to Benicio, are people I’ve been so anxious to work with over the years, and here was a chance.  Even more thrilling was finding new young actors like Hong Chau or Jordan Christian Hearn, or working with greats like Jeannie Berlin, Eric Roberts and Martin Short.”

Then there is Gordita Beach itself, a mythological coastal city Pynchon first wrote about in his 1990 novel Vineland, which might or might not be modeled after that once freewheeling, if petrochemical-laden, surf town that is now upscale Manhattan Beach.  The chance to create Pynchon’s alternate seaside universe was exhilarating.

“I’m from California, I’m from Los Angeles, I was born in 1970, so there was a straight flush of reasons to be interested in this era,” says Anderson.  “And then you add to that good music, cars and girls…”

But this is also a different view of Los Angeles than seen in Anderson’s previous films— which have traversed the map from the late-1970s adult film world of “Boogie Nights,” to a contemporary realm of crises and miracles in “Magnolia,” to the unexpected site of amour fou in “Punch-Drunk Love,” to the emerging landscape of 20th century ambition in “There Will Be Blood.”

Anderson says among his key influences for the film’s look was an underground comic strip, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, created in 1968 by artist Gilbert Shelton, which featured the misadventures of the three notoriously ungainful, dope-seeking Freak Brothers in line drawings that had a playful, trippy warmth.

He and his fellow filmmaking team, which includes Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit, production designer David Crank and costume designer Mark Bridges, then searched for the last vestiges of authentic surf culture and psychedelia in Southern California.  “It’s getting harder and harder to find the past,” notes Anderson, “much harder than it was in 1997 when we made ‘Boogie Nights.’”

An equally vital factor in powering the time machine that is “Inherent Vice” is the music, which features both an original score by Jonny Greenwood in his third collaboration with Anderson, following “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master,” and a soundtrack that sweeps through lesser-heard sounds of the 1970s, from the cult experimental band Can to Minnie Riperton to Neil Young himself.

“There are too many great tunes to choose from for this era,” says Anderson.  “I just had to audition stuff to see what fit.  There are so many musical references in the book—we didn’t have enough film to support all of that.  But we did use the classic ‘Here Comes the Ho-Dads’ [by The Marketts].  Talk about surf sax solos!  Coy Harlingen would be proud.”

Though redolent with rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia, “Inherent Vice” does not stay entirely parked in time.  It cannot, for the characters are also trying to escape time, to escape time’s unavoidable, inherent vices.  And they do so through the very same sex, drugs and music that defined the era.

Doc’s investigation leads down all the outrageous and impenetrable detours of the era, from Ouija Boards to Nixon rallies, from minor revelations to a shot at redemption, only to deposit him back on Gordita Beach, in the thick of the fog, on the edge of the blue, watching the “sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness.”