When Thomas Pynchon writes a new novel, it’s always a big event. And although some critics have found derogatory terms for his last two works, Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge, characterizing them as “Pynchon light”, they will nonetheless remain mass-incompatible with a myriad of persons, parallel plots and sub-plots, which all seem to entangle, mingle, morph and disappear at the most unexpected moments.
And with those properties, it’s relatively clear that you can’t turn something with many hundreds of pages and that complexity into a film – but what about a novel with just some three-hundred-seventy-something pages?
It seems director Paul Thomas Anderson decided to find out when he started working on Inherent Vice, turning it into about 2.5 hours of cinematic enjoyment. Or is it really enjoyment?
One important decision Anderson made was to try to capture the very unique feel and atmosphere of this book, as this always has been one of the important aspects of Pynchon’s work. Which consequently means that if you turn a dialogue worth two lines of text into a five-minute scene and you have nearly 400 pages to cover, you need to make compromises.
And that is really the major problem with this film. While it’s well known that one important aspect in Pynchon’s work is the sheer number of actors and plotlines, it often gets overlooked that, in the end, they all end up really connected and making sense. In the film, this gets lost. The ARPANET reference (one of those Pynchon moments in the book), the entire Las Vegas plot, together with the desert housing project of Mickey Wolfmann, are simply missing. And the problem is, they’re not missing completely, because some dialogues refer to them and thus end up completely disconnected and hanging in mid-air. Which may explain why some critics (which by all propability didn’t digest the novel) complained about exactly that. It’s even more annoying considering that some of that might have been shoved aside to make room for the otherwise unconvincing Katherine Waterston’s beaver – which didn’t play a role in the novel to begin with.
Leaving that aside for a moment, there’s positive things. One: Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello really is the Doc from the book. It’s the small details, the seemingly involuntary facial movements, that make him just BE that slightly odd character. Also, beauty lies in several minor roles, such as Reese Witherspoon as Penny Kimball or Martin Short as Dr. Rudy Blatnoid. And the photography is great all the way through, including very clever work with basic geometric shapes created by the camera angles – and helps, together with Phoenix’ acting, to deliver that feel that more or less the entire world in this film is always on at least one illicit substance.
In summary, this film leaves me with mixed feelings. One one hand, it is a highly entertaining (if somewhat hard to digest) film, feeling almost like a Lynch film, only with more humour and plot. On the other, it not only falls short of, but in part completely misses the beauty of the book.
But maybe that was also just the goal here, considering that the number of people interesting in highly entertaining plots and Waterston’s privates is much higher than that of people interested in Pynchon.