When I heard that Paul Thomas Anderson was going to adapt Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Anderson's films. I was sixteen years old when Boogie Nights came out, which might be the perfect age to see that movie. I was just old enough that I was allowed to see a film that was full of sex, drugs and violence; I was also just young enough that my ideal movie was full of sex, drugs and violence; therefore a film about porn stars that end up robbing drug dealers at gun point was giving me basically everything I had ever asked for all at once. Since then, I've loved some of Anderson's movies a lot, and others I've struggled with a bit, but even when I couldn't embrace his work wholeheartedly I could at least respect it.
On the other hand, I have never had much of a stomach for Thomas Pynchon, whose writing style is so self-consciously literary that it feels like nails on a chalkboard to me. Now, I'm not necessarily making an aesthetic judgment on the man's work - I'm just stating a personal preference. (For the record, I'm including that (half-assed) disclaimer so I don't reopen Pynchon-gate, which is a debate I had with a friend years ago that should probably stay buried, because it got a little rough at times.) The few times I tried to wade into Pynchon's thickets of prose, I was very frustrated because I prefer conversational writers and he's the exact opposite of that - every sentence he composes seems to have been coiled and compacted until it was as intricate and dense as it could possibly be. I can see how his works would be intellectually fulfilling if you really engaged with them, but they always seemed so obtuse to me that I never wanted to put in the amount of work it would take to engage with them.
Thus when I sat down to see Inherent Vice I really wanted to know: could the film reflect both auteur's point of view simultaneously? If it had to pick one master, would it have the freewheeling vitality of Anderson's best movies or would it have the suffocating complexity of Pynchon's books? Would it be one of those difficult to engage with works of art that I can respect even if I can't love, or would it be one of those difficult to engage with works of art that just annoy me?
Well, I'll put it this way... I made this face a lot during the movie:
Technically, Inherent Vice is about a stoner private eye named Doc Sportello who investigates a winding mystery about a real estate developer, a heroin smuggling cartel and an Aryan biker gang. I used the word "technically" because Inherent Vice is less about a plot than it is about establishing and exploring a specifically defined late 70's Southern California milieu. On some level, that's a good decision; most of Hollywood's classic noirs aren't good because their central whodunnit makes sense, they're good because they establish a compelling mood. (There's a reason why I've seen the Maltese Falcon multiple times, but it's definitely not the story, which I'm pretty sure actively defies straight forward explanation.) Unfortunately, Inherent Vice's central mood felt lethargic and dull to me.
Most of the problem lies with the Doc Sportello character: he's in nearly every frame of the movie, but he's a fairly uninteresting person, constantly stoned and too passive for his own good. He often seems to be one step behind the plot, which would be fine if he was eager to catch up - but he seems so ambivalent about making forward progress that I found it almost impossible to be interested in his meandering investigation. Sportello needs a counterbalancing figure, a proactive yin to his reactive yang, and to some extent he has that in the form of Bigfoot, an angry cop who is just as likely to hassle Doc as he is to help him. Unfortunately, Bigfoot is very much a supporting character, not half of a buddy comedy - he appears intermittently and often disappears far too quickly from the screen.
Anderson's strength has always been in his ability to observe little details and flesh them out. He favors large ensemble casts, and he makes all of the supporting characters feel like vibrant and real people even if they don't get much screen time. Unfortunately, the little details he picks up from Pynchon's novel frustrated me more than they entertained me. There's a lot of voice over that's spools out in a dense unrhythmic tangle, and there's a lot of unnecessary detours along the way that felt self indulgent to me. I can imagine that there's an audience out there that's eager to engage with this movie - but I honestly don't think it's worth the effort it would take to do so.
Winner: The Cat