In college I wrote a paper on the subversion of the detective novel in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. I got an A, although the paper received its highest compliment in 2009. That’s when Pynchon finally lived up to my astonishing insight and published a detective novel, “Inherent vice.” This survey of Los Angeles weirdness circa 1970 is brought to the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson.
The Crying of Lot 49 features suburban housewife Oedipa Maas, who turns amateur sleuth and runs into the secret mail service Tristero. “Inherent vice” features of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a hippie gumshoe investigating the disappearance of real estate baron Mickey Wolffman. He crosses paths with Nazi bikers, hardhead cops, federal agents, hippie chicks, and dissolute dentists, leading to a secret criminal syndicate called The Golden Fang.
[In one of the scenes featuring Petunia Leeway (portrayed by Maya Rudolph), the Minnie Riperton song “Les Fleur” can be heard playing on the soundtrack. Minnie Riperton is the mother of Maya Rudolph – source: IMDB]
Like many post-modern novelists, Pynchon’s writings reflect on the flexible nature of language and meaning. Words and signs are infinitely open to interpretation and, in nefarious hands, manipulation. When Sportello asks about a swastika tattoo on a patient’s face at a mental asylum, the doctor replies that it’s actually an ancient Hindu symbol for luck and triumph. This is about as Pynchonesque as it gets.
As you might guess, such flexibility of meaning is an occupational hazard for detectives. Simple clues lead Sherlock Holmes to rational conclusions. In contrast, post-modern clues lead post-modern detectives like Sportello to muddy answers and a longer set of questions. If followed down the rabbit hole, they lead to absurd conclusions (if they conclude at all)
A second fascination for Pynchon is conspiracy. His stories are filled with secret societies, usually with long, off-the-books histories. This can be a criminal syndicate, like The Golden Fang, or more concrete entities like the Los Angeles Police Department. Typically, these shadowy conspiracies want to remain shadowy, and they use the manipulation of words, signs, and information to defend against the Sportellos of the world. In terms of narrative form, Pynchon turns conspiracy back onto the readers (in movie form, the viewers).The plot is not only “the conflict in the story” but also a plot (to use a double-meaning) against the detective and the reader/viewer.
So if you feel confused by its maze-like nature and the onslaught of so many clues, characters, and motivations in the third hour of Anderson’s movie then congratulations: it worked. The spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down is the outlandish comedy. As long as you are being confused to death, you might as well have a good time.
Particularly amusing is the love-hate relationship between Sportello and the Joe Friday-est of Joe Friday police detectives, ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen, played memorably by Josh Brolin. Sure, Bigfoot enjoys beating up the hippie detective from time to time. But he also sees through the wastoid exterior to Sportello’s smarts and talents. This underlines a fact about Doc that you slowly come to appreciate. He may walk around in a puff of marijuana smoke, but he’s not a fool, although he knows how to play on people’s perceptions of him as one.
Anderson stays faithful to the spirit of Pynchon but he’s not a natural translator. Anderson has had success with comedy in the context of dramedy (think “Boogie Nights”). He has been less successful with straight comedy (“Punch-Drunk Love”). While there are some flowering comic moments in “Inherent vice,” particularly a zoinked visit to Martin Short’s gonzo dentist (The Golden Fang, criminal syndicate or dental organization?) film needs a lighter sort of oddball sensibility. Wes Anderson would have twisted the material into a Wes Anderson movie, but that’s the sort of feel that I mean. Nonetheless, “Inherent vice” succeeds as an out-of-tune symphony of the California of another time, generally.