Rating:Thomas Pynchon begins his 2009 neo-noir detective novel Inherent Vice with an epigraph taken from graffiti seen during Paris’s May 1968 riots: “Under the paving stones, the beach!” Because he places this subversive phrase at the beginning of the book, Pynchon is asking you to keep it in mind as you navigate the ensuing pages, immersing yourself in a sun-soaked California story set in 1970 that’s alternately funny, beguiling, alluring, alienating and ultimately redemptive, but not obviously political. The story’s political elements seem to exist on the margins, slipping into the narrative when you least expect them. It’s a quintessentially Pynchonian gesture, the sort that makes you second-guess everything you read as you read it, but it also places you deeper into the minds of the characters, who happen to be in the exact the same boat you are. If nothing else, it encourages repeat reading, and a Pynchon novel, like all great literature, thrives on return visits.
In his filmed version of the book, a comic masterpiece that stands as the only official adaptation of the author’s work, director Paul Thomas Anderson places the quote at the very end, after the final credit rolls up the screen. It’s not clear exactly why he put the quote where he did—whether he’s simply paying homage to the author, or the quote, or maybe just winking to those moviegoers who like to stay until the lights come up—but it isn’t insignificant: Anderson essentially changes the context of the quote as it relates to the story. In the book, it’s something of a red herring, a presiding sentiment that colors the numerous plot twists and characterizations but doesn’t exactly hold the key to unlocking their enigmatic qualities; in the film, it’s more of an underline, a post-script that confirms the preceding action’s cryptic, playfully dissident ways.
Indeed, this is a cryptic film, centered on a nest of subplots and characters that build and build without actually gaining narrative weight. It’s also remarkably beautiful, beginning with an image similar to the one that opens Anderson’s previous film, The Master: a starkly framed wide shot of open water. Although this time, the undulating ripples are bookended by a pair of unmistakably Californian beachside bungalows. Pothead private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receives a visit from his ex-old lady, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), and she needs his help. She’s worried people are out to get her current beau, a powerful Southland real estate mogul, so she’s hoping Doc can keep his ear to the ground. He agrees, and from there he traverses encounters with neo-Nazis, black militants, antisubversive right-wing groups, whistleblowers, the LAPD, a coked-out dentist, the feds and a shadowy organization dubbed the Golden Fang—which might be an international drug cartel, group of anti-Communist rabble-rousers, a shadow government, a medical insurance company, all of the above or maybe just a boat.
It’s all pretty convoluted, but that’s exactly the point. The story’s most remarkable feat, and probably its most political gesture, is detailing the mutability of supposedly fixed sociopolitical taxonomies: hippies are shacking up with businessmen, Jews are making deals with Aryan biker gangs (who in turn are making deals with black power renegades), while political turncoats are playing both sides and the government has a hand in all of it. That this all coincides with the end of ‘60s counterculture indeed rings cynical, but the film is more somber than pessimistic. Amid the goofy humor and bizarre digressions, the wry cultural references and stoner charm, a fog of nostalgia—found in the soft and hazy sunlight beaming down from Anderson’s beloved California skies—clouds these characters even more than the equally present fog of marijuana smoke. (But then again, is nostalgia not a drug?)
People may have a tendency to read deeper into all this than is necessary. In Anderson’s films, as in Pynchon’s novels, things are exactly as they seem, even when the characters and situations seem their most abstract and inscrutable. Because of the virtuosity of his filmmaking, Anderson has precious little time for banal symbolism and narrative allegory. Even during his most dreamlike sequences, when partygoers dance in the nude and frogs fall from the sky, what we see is what we get, and we’re simply meant to decipher how we feel, not what things might “represent.” If there’s any sort of “key” to understanding Inherent Vice, the book or the film, it’s in letting the experience wash over you, in allowing the seemingly contradictory moods and rebounding storylines gel into an imperfect but uniquely beautiful whole.
Clearly on Pynchon’s wavelength, Anderson adapts the novel faithfully, going so far as to lift entire passages into his own script, but he does much more than simply give the text a cinematic shape: he successfully translates the experience of reading a Pynchon text to a visual medium. He honors the story’s meandering structure and lackadaisical action, the absurd humor and the hyper-specific milieu, taking obvious pleasure in amassing counterculture ephemera in frames that occasionally resemble single-panel comic strips. In intimate close-ups—the kind that made The Master’s 70mm brio so devastatingly personal—and bravura long takes, Pynchon’s words come to life, their mystery deepened by Anderson’s own fascination with ambiguity and anticlimax.
Perhaps this all makes the film sound weightier than it really is. Like its source material, Inherent Vice has a very casual swagger, a low-key register that belies the craftsmanship at hand. The novel is one of Pynchon’s least arduous and probably his most frivolous, but it’s confident and smooth in a way that makes “minor” seem like a damning description, even if it’s exactly that. Think of Inherent Vice as a sort of discordant symphony gradually reducing into a single, profound note: a single image of two people in a car, unsure of where they’re going but going nonetheless, bound by light and sound and the sense that things won’t stop, so we might as well take the ride.