Feelin’ Groovy? Sort of. Inherent Vice, Book and Film Reviewed
Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is truly an inspired novel, but it is also a flabby and flawed one. The idea itself is clever, an attempt to update—whether as somewhat absurd homage or blatant parody is hard to say, since it doesn’t fully work as either—the hard-boiled detective stories of Raymond Chandler to the psychedelic era in Los Angeles.
Apart from the widespread counter-culture movement, this included a unique climate of fear and tension in the city following the riots of 1968 and the grisly Manson Family murders of ‘69. Conservative forces not only ran the LAPD at this time (as they always tend do with the police and military) but also the state, as this was well into Ronald Reagan’s reign as governor. And don’t forget that President Nixon, the Square-in-Chief himself, was a southern Californian. Beyond that, LA’s hippies were their own breed: for whatever reason, the Summer of Love met with a slightly different reaction in the Southland than it did in Haight-Ashbury. In music, think of the brooding darkness of Jim Morrison the Doors as compared to the trippy lightness and sense of kinship evoked by the Grateful Dead; contrast the satirical cynicism of Frank Zappa with the utopian seriousness of Jefferson Airplane. Zappa mocked the “revolution,” saw it for its vapidity and vanity (he and the Mothers sang “ooh my hair is getting good in the back” and “flower power sucks!” on the album We’re Only in it for the Money), and foresaw that it all would quickly be co-opted by corporate capitalism. His was in many ways the voice of the L.A. scene.
In this as in so many other regards, there was a cultural divide between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Zappa famously rejected the drugs but not the sex, of course; picture a mustachioed lothario delighting in all that groupies had to offer. Most of the Topanga Canyon hippie-types and the high schoolers following in their sandaled footsteps rejected neither. Sex, drugs, give me all that I can take and more. The emerging lesson before long, though, was that there is no free love without crotch rot, and for every mind-opening acid trip there was the psychotic freak-out or some rock star overdosing on smack or swimming in alcohol to an early grave. For every Marty Balin chirping about peace and love there was a Hell’s Angel ready to kick his skinny ass back to Woodstock.
But L.A.! The beach! Yes, ‘tis glorious, but there is also smog. Tanned little beautiful pixie surfer girls twirl around but watch out for the Crips and Bloods and scowling Black Panthers. There are starlets in shining raiment but also pimps and hos on Hollywood Boulevard and beggars sleeping in grime on Skid Row. Watch the free spirits in Volkswagen buses puttering up PCH or the Grapevine, far out man, and, trailing not far behind, the fascist cops who pull them over and beat the living shit out of them. Welcome to southern California, circa 1970.
Enter Pynchon’s main character, Larry “Doc” Sportello, hippie private eye, and the various tools of his trade. Marijuana? Check. LSD? Check. Blow? Check. Nitrous Oxide? Check. Heroin? Well, maybe a little. Body Odor? Apparently a lot. Random sexual encounters? Oh yes. Put him on the case of a missing ex-girlfriend and her current beau, Mickey Wolfmann, a wealthy and married real estate developer—and not just any developer, one who hangs around with neo-Nazis. Wolfmann, moreover, had recently been overcome with charitable and communistic impulses, seeking to build free public housing and supposedly atone for past greed. Throw into this mix a very modern consortium of organized crime, the “Golden Fang.” To wit: Import the heroin by boat. Distribute the heroin. Run a New Wave-influenced Rehab Center. Have a dental office specializing in fixing or replacing the ruined teeth of addicts. In the novel and film this is referred to as Vertical Integration, a wise business model indeed. In other words, provide all the services the addict will need over the course of a lifetime. It is reminiscent of the liturgical litany of various sacraments of churches (i.e., those that practice infant baptism) intended to ensure a firm hold onto believers from cradle to grave. Whatever and whenever you need, here it is.
This sounds like the set-up for an interesting ride, but there are too many characters in the novel that become hard to keep track of, even with their trippy names (Shasta, Bigfoot, Coy, Puck, Japonica, etc.). It is a breezy novel for a spell but then starts to feel like work. The last hundred pages drag along. The description and dialogue occasionally have real zing, but Pynchon peppers the story with dumb song lyrics, presumably of his own invention, and real film references that are never compelling in any way. Most distracting in the book is Pynchon’s nonsensical use of question marks. (Imagine that statement with a question mark at the end and you’ll get the idea.) The question marks are misused in dialogue by basically all the characters, so this is clearly a quirk of the author, not of any one voice in the story. As a reader one can try to give Pynchon the benefit of the doubt and rationalize that he is trying to capture a distinctly California lilt or something, but there is no consistency, no method to this grammatical weirdness. I had to wonder, is he just an idiot? (That question mark is correct? Ha.)
Fast forward a few decades and enter Paul Thomas Anderson, generally regarded as one of the true auteurs—i.e., writer, director, visionary—of contemporary cinema. His debut, Hard Eight, was a subtle but impressive Vegas tale that likely broke a record for the most cigarettes smoked in 90 minutes. A young John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow and not so young Philip Baker Hall all puff and puff away in this intriguing but slightly sluggish drama. Anderson’s follow-up, the much-heralded Boogie Nights, was an overrated costume party, noteworthy for the subject matter (porn tragedy), Dirk Diggler’s long schlong, and the shocking notion that Burt Reynolds might be able to act after all(!). Stroker Ace, is that you? The next film in the oeuvre, the bleak Magnolia, was a complex web of heavy themes that in the end seems far too soundtrack-driven. But hey, Tom Cruise might be able to act after all(!). The box office bomb Punchdrunk Love remains a charming romantic comedy featuring two lonely weirdos leading lives of quiet desperation who manage to find each other amid the soulless apartment complexes of the San Fernando Valley. Adam Sandler can act after all (?!?). Maybe. Anderson’s fifth feature, There Will Be Blood, stands as his masterpiece, an unforgettable and visually stunning story. No one was surprised that Daniel Day Lewis could act, of course, but his performance as oil baron Daniel Plainview was nothing short of amazing. Then we have The Master—a tedious, unwatchable fictional take on the early days of Scientology (or at least something very akin to it). What, no Tom Cruise? And maybe Joaquin Phoenix can’t act after all? It’s just hard to watch him in this excruciating motion picture. The Master is such a grueling experience that I look back fondly to the days before I saw it.
Inherent Vice, meanwhile, is a great film. It is best described as hilarious and really just a cool experience. The cinematography, as with There Will Be Blood, is top-notch—there is an understated artistic beauty to the scenes. Back again in front of Anderson’s camera, Joaquin Phoenix realizes the humor and grubby hippie goofiness of Doc, the “rolling with it “stoner savvy vibe of the character. It is a zany ride. And moreso than the book, the pace is well-managed. It is both slower in the right spots and brisker in the right places than the novel.
Any adaptation, as the Charlie Kaufman/Spike Jonze film of the same name made clear, involves substantial license and difficult choices for the screenwriter. The movie is better construed as a new work of art that grows from the seeds to be found in the book or play. In the case of Inherent Vice, the filmmaker has made decisions that usually represent an upgrade over the author’s original. Some are minor but others substantially change the story. For example, Sortilege goes from being a bit character representing secondhand guru knowledge in the novel to a spectral omniscient narrative voice-over that lends much-needed exposition, transitional links, and coherence to the story—and at times, she even seems to express Doc’s moral conscience and his thinking process, both intuitive and rational. The way she appears in the film, we cannot be sure as viewers if she is an hallucination or not. Her ambiguous “presence” adds to the drug-induced cloudiness of Doc’s detective work. In the book, however, she is unquestionably real, significant only for being maybe slightly more in touch with the mysterious cosmic “whatever “ than the other daffy hippies Doc has in his circle.
In the case of the character Coy (Owen Wilson in the film), his scenes with Doc are trimmed, adjusted, combined. Conversations between Doc and other characters are moved to different locations. Many characters are removed from the story entirely, which was wise, especially when their role is just to communicate some information germane to the case. That expository function might as well be transferred to a more essential character. More of a running gag in the film than the book are the succinct, sometimes silly notes that Doc puts in his notebook, such as when he jots down “something Spanish” when hearing the name of the low income housing development. Anderson recognizes this is comic relief as well as a glimpse at Doc’s odd detective methods, and he gives us more of it than Pynchon did.
A major and ill-advised alteration is the removal of all the Las Vegas scenes from the book. This does make it more of an insulated southern Californian story, which is justifiable, but pruning this section eliminates an important early set of interactions between Doc and Puck. When they meet later on in the climax of the film, there isn’t that extra weight of their past encounter that is in the novel, and, frankly, something substantial is lost.
Las Vegas in the book is also the setting in the book for Doc’s discovery of the aforementioned missing real estate developer, not so in the film. And in only one of these versions do the two converse. Hint: it’s not something you’re going to read. Anderson invents that scene in the Ojai loony bin, one of the more interesting of the movie. It is possible that the Vegas-ectomy was simply because of time constraints, or to save the expense of an additional location, etc. Not all of those Vegas pages in the book are needed, but something crucial is lost when they are just summarily cut. But I have no complaints about the later South Bay boat chase disappearing, for instance. Good riddance. I am less sure about Anderson’s choice to make the Bigfoot-Adrian relationship less ambiguous than it was in the novel.
And there little things that would have been nice to include, such as when Doc calls 911 for Adrian after shooting him, or the second Tariq scene (the gifted actor Michael Kenneth Williams, best known as charismatic Omar from The Wire and Chalky inBoardwalk Empire, is mostly wasted in the film). A more serious problem with the adaptation is the stripping away of almost all of the Manson cloud that hangs over the characters in the novel. We see some of it with Doc’s hairstyle (the muttonchops and the parted longish hair) and a passing reference by Bigfoot where he mourns that he doesn’t have the celebrity status of the Cielo Drive detectives (Cielo Drive being where Sharon Tate and her houseguests were murdered). Other than that, there is nothing about Manson or the Helter Skelter aftermath in the movie.
Without giving too many spoilers, of the four final memorable scenes in the film, only one and a half is actually in the novel, and it takes place by phone, while in the film it is face-to-face—in a car in front of the house of some very significant others, and understandably this has much more emotional impact. And if the Bigfoot-Doc exchange of “I’m not your brother”/“But you could use a keeper” seems a bit off to you in terms of tone and content, there might be a reason for that. It’s not in the novel.
Any reader of popular or classic fare, especially the rabid bibliophile type, would admit that it is not ideal to watch the movie version first. By being filmed, the visualization has already occurred: the characters have faces and voices, the settings have landscapes and furniture, etc. The reader’s imagination, such a prominent player in reading, has already been molded by the filmmaker’s interpretation and fiat. Hardly ever is this fair to the author. However, seeing Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot gain oral pleasure from a chocolate-covered frozen banana in the film is a much more lasting image than merely reading about it. Anderson realized the potential in those words that Pynchon didn’t quite accent the same way. He (or possibly improvising actors ) added other side-splitting touches, such as the Feds so un-self-consciously and thoroughly picking their noses, Doc treating air freshener as deodorant, and even some of the best lines in whole she-bang, such as when Bigfoot says of the missing Shasta, “She’s gone, man….She went all groovy on us,” or the boytoy Riggs’ response of “pleasurable” when Doc asks him, “how do you do?” These laughs are not in the book.
For me and I would guess many others, it was the movie that led me to buy and read the novel, something I probably never would have done otherwise. It wasn’t surprising to find that many of the virtues of Inherent Vice “the film” are Anderson’s, not Pynchon’s (although to be fair, several gems in the book did not make it to the screen). One of the most effective qualities of the picture is its atmosphere, which is the work of Anderson and his crew. But if I had read the book first, I am sure I would have had more appreciation for Pynchon’s efforts and would have found more fault with the film. So is it the filmmaker’s duty to do a faithful adaption of a novel or to create something better? Paul Thomas has shown that this is a false dilemma, as he retained the best of the spirit of Inherent Vice while generally making it a better story. I watched and then I read, and there is no shame in that. Next time I might very well look for the novel first.
Reviewed by Royce Grubic