One hour before the premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice, a line of over a hundred hopefuls are queued up in front of Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center for standby tickets to the biggest premiere of the New York Film Festival. It was a heady crew reading physical books and lazily chatting about the merits of film vs. digital. Low-key and covertly desperate, the chatter floats topically from Pynchon’s newest novel on big data, Bleeding Edge, to that Simpsons episode where Pynchon appears with a bag over his head, to PTA’s previous film, The Master, using 70mm film ,and the tragedy of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
A NYFF intern runs around putting pink post-its on people. A second college-age intern then says those post-its don’t mean anything and puts new, yellow post-its on people. Confusion grows, and I remember why I live in Los Angeles (hammocks, mainly). Then a well-tailored suit streaks up Broadway. He has one ticket for $30. Done. A banker-slash-scalper. Pynchon would approve.
The lights go down and we are transported to Los Angeles circa 1970. Gordita Beach, to be exact, a fictional enclave reminiscent of Venice Beach before it was colonized by lightly tattooed ad execs called “creatives” known for Yelping on their iPads with surfboards in tow. The film goes back to a time when nubile young runaways in white robes served up health food “consciously prepared for the highest vibration” at The Source Restaurant on the Sunset Strip. Sure, the Manson murders were a major buzzkill, but the city teemed on with its washed-out sprawl of shady developers and hippie burnouts. The sun shone down and validated every crackpot idea, as one very stoned private eye tangentially investigates something.
This is the setting for Anderson’s strange new film based on Pynchon’s obviously weird book, both the first time the notoriously reclusive author has allowed his work to be adapted to film and the first time a director has been ambitious enough to attempt it. For Anderson, it’s a loving return to the delirious LA sleaze that has captivated the writer-director since his breakout film, Boogie Nights.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Doc Sportello, a mutton-chopped mumbling stoner gumshoe tasked by his sultry ex-girl Shasta (Katherine Waterson) with investigating the disappearance of her shady current flame, the real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). With each joint smoked, Doc descends further into a web of Aryan Brothers, Black Panthers, predatory drug-addled dentists (Martin Short), washed up maritime lawyers (Benicio Del Toro), a criminal organization-cum-massage parlor called The Golden Fang (offering the Pussy Eater’s special for only $14.99), a disappeared saxophonist (Owen Wilson), and along the way, a hippie-hating LAPD detective Bigfoot Bjornson (a perfectly cast Josh Brolin).
Alternately slapstick and sly, gorgeous and moody (to be expected from loyal cinematographer Robert Elswit), Inherent Vice is noir more concerned with deepening the mystery than actually solving it. Relieved I didn’t inhale pre-screening, I walked out feeling distinctly stoned. Was that skinhead’s swastika face tattoo actually a Hindu symbol for good luck? Did that cop actually fellate a chocolate-covered frozen banana (the iconic Southern Californian beach food)? What the hell was The Golden Fang?
Invariably, Anderson can’t capture the full hilarity of Pynchon’s prose—there were more smirks than laughs at the screening—but trying to translate Pynchon’s brilliant “karmic thermals” and “collective seizures” and “Watusi-ing the night away” can’t be easy, plus, Anderson is not exactly known for being funny. He’s lighting up and trying to get goofy. Joaquin Phoenix and Owen Wilson readily admit they haven’t even read Pynchon’s book. Martin Short joked, “I had my assistant read it to me.” Still, Pynchon World—where clarity is an illusion and new facts are allusions to new layers of confusion—seems to have won out.
Stepping out of Lincoln Center into post-Bloomberg New York is a major bummer, dude. No sideburns, no dopers, no hot cult leaders, no Pussy Eater’s Special. After almost being run over by an Uber Escalade, I ached to be back in the world of Inherent Vice, where we are not even fooling ourselves that we’re putting together the pieces, just lighting up a joint and stumbling through the dark side of a Los Angeles that’s long lost itself.