Two things are surprising about this adaptation:
- Paul Thomas Anderson and his cast make Inherent Vice compelling and funny for the most part even when the plot goes by the wayside or becomes too hard to follow
- Present-day Paul Thomas Anderson proves that Thomas Pynchon is unfilmable, but the younger Paul Thomas Anderson who made Magnolia might have been able to pull it off
Anderson punctuates much of the film with long takes and secretive conversations, the information mumbled or whispered conspiratorially to avoid prying ears, though sometimes to a fault. There's something off with the audio mix of the film, and many lines are either unintelligible or too muddy. This issue is most apparent with Doc's dialogue more than anyone else's (e.g., you never have a problem hearing Josh Brolin's straight-laced LA cop Bigfoot Bjornsen or Joanna Newsom's side character/film's narrator Sortilège), and while some of the indistinct dialogue is intentional and hilarious, the rest is problematic since the tone of the information is conveyed but the information itself becomes lost in the haze.
What's missing in the film version of Inherent Vice is a greater sense of texture, which is something that Pynchon excels at on the page. There's a surf band in the novel called The Boards and their sax player Coy Harlingen (played by Owen Wilson who's whispery in a good way) is part of the case Doc's working on, but we don't really get to hear any of that music. As far as I can tell, none of the fake songs by fake bands in the novel were recorded for the film (The Boards, The Spotted Dicks, Meatball Flag); life at Gordita Beach isn't really discussed either; Pynchon's various side trips that deepen or enliven the story (there's literally one flashback [acid] trip in which Doc thought he was a time-traveling alien named Xqq) aren't given their due.
Pynchon accomplishes these textured moments in a paragraph or a few paragraphs, and it's much easier to do in text. He's basically layering stories on stories--a kind of world-building as palimpsest (i.e., in this case, stories written on stories on stories). But that isn't to say this technique is impossible in film or a cinematic analog is impossible. Anderson shows he can do it in several scenes. A few of the long takes in Inherent Vice convey a sense of time passing, character history, and even a sense of disillusionment brewing for months (or years) in just a few minutes. There's a flashback to a kinder and more beautiful time in Doc and Shasta's lives when the desperation for drugs was high but so was their love for each other. That sequence, which plays out over Neil Young's "Journey Through the Past," is followed by Doc's visit to the same location in the present time. The changes in weather, lighting, landscape, and situation provide a cinematic equivalent of this palimpsest in just two adjoining scenes.
A memorable long take near the end of the film is a masterfully done cinematic palimpsest as well. A character tells Doc a story, and while that story about the past is told in dialogue, another story gets told through the careful and minor shifts in character blocking and the shot's composition even though it's a single take, and another story through the body language and the facial expressions, and another in tone of voice and wateriness of eyes, and then all of these stories are reconsidered given what happens in the climax of this long take; and a different context is lent to the texts of this scene in its final moments, and again in the shot that immediately follows this long take. It's these virtuosic conjunctions of composition, lighting, performance, and dialogue that reveal the filmability of what would otherwise seem unfilmable: in one scene, Anderson depicts the death of 60s idealism while doing a dozen other things simultaneously.
Present-day Anderson predominantly shoots Inherent Vice in a loose and slow style rather than a dense one, whereas the Anderson who made Magnolia was all about speed, control, and momentum as a means to create the narrative palimpsest. So much is conveyed about characters and character relationships in Magnolia in just its opening montage and its carefully contextualizing voiceover and the steady accretion of information that winds up in frame. While the main story of Magnolia takes place in the present of the characters' lives, so much about their past and the world they live in is communicated by the obsessive details, and it's done so quickly, or with an overt sense of impending. Obviously Magnolia is a different story than Inherent Vice, and yet Magnolia feels more overtly Pynchon-esque to me because of how packed and propulsive it is, like a Pynchon sentence at its best.
Then again, Inherent Vice has been dubbed "Pynchon Lite."
I'll watch Inherent Vice when it comes out in December, sure, because there's this other theory brewing about the approach to the movie. It's based on Anderon's love for Neil Young. Anderson showed a clip of Young's 1972 film Journey Through the Past, which Young directed, during a conversation with Kent Jones of the New York Film Festival. It was a long take of Young silently smoking a joint and eating strawberries on a sunny day with his girl, and then he says something you can barely hear before they get back in their old car and drive off. The Inherent Vice soundtrack features two songs by Neil Young, whose work, as far as I know, doesn't appear anywhere in the book Inherent Vice.
So, like, hear me out: what if the movie Inherent Vice is like Paul Thomas Anderson's cover version of the novel Inherent Vice but done using the sentence structure of Neil Young's Journey Through the Past rather than Thomas Pynchon?
No, I am not stoned.