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Arts & Culture

Paul Thomas Anderson Finds The Virtues In Thomas Pynchon's 'Inherent Vice'

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Doc -- described as "hippie scum" by the local LAPD -- in Paul Thomas Anderson's trippy film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel, "Inherent Vice."
Warner Brothers
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Doc -- described as "hippie scum" by the local LAPD -- in Paul Thomas Anderson's trippy film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel, "Inherent Vice."

A Trippy Take On The Film Noir Detective Genre

Film Review: 'Inherent Vice'
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice."

Paul Thomas Anderson is the first director ambitious enough to tackle American novelist Thomas Pynchon, who’s noted for his dense and complex novels. "Inherent Vice" (opening Jan. 9 at Landmark Theatres) proves to be a trippy take on the noir detective genre. It always begins with a dame. CLIP I need your help Doc… I know what you’re thinking… thinking comes later… That pretty much sums up every noir detective film ever made. There’s a dame in need and a guy so blinded by her beauty or her lies or his own emotions that he postpones thinking until it’s too late, until he’s in too deep. Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice serves up a trippy mix of Sam Spade and The Dude or Raymond Chandler done as a Cheech and Chong movie. Another fresh twist Anderson brings to the genre is a female narrator who delivers unexpected insights and emotion in what’s been a male-dominated field. CLIP: Back when they were together she could go weeks without anything more complicated than a pout, now she was laying some heavy combination of face ingredients on Doc that he couldn’t read at all. “Inherent Vice” is as epic and as carefully calibrated as Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” but deceptively so. Doc’s drugged stupor provides the misleading cover for a meticulously crafted film in which the chaos is perfectly structured, hazy events are rendered in sharp detail, and dialogue crackles with casual cleverness. Watch this one twice. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

Companion Viewing

"The Big Sleep" (1946)

"The Big Lebowski" (1998)

"There Will Be Blood" (2007)

In "Inherent Vice," Josh Brolin plays Lt. Det. Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, described more than once as a "Renaissance cop" by the L.A. Times, the character boasts.
Warner Brothers
In "Inherent Vice," Josh Brolin plays Lt. Det. Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, described more than once as a "Renaissance cop" by the L.A. Times, the character boasts.

Paul Thomas Anderson is the first director ambitious enough to tackle American novelist Thomas Pynchon, who’s noted for his dense and complex novels. "Inherent Vice" (opening Jan. 9 at Landmark Theatres) proves to be a trippy take on the noir detective genre.

It always begins with a dame.

"I need your help Doc," Shasta (Katherine Waterston) says to her ex-boyfriend Doc (Joachin Phoenix) in the opening scene of "Inherent Vice." When she explains it involves a married man and a scam engineered by his philandering wife, she adds, "I know what you’re thinking."

To which Doc replies, "Don't worry, thinking comes later."

And that pretty much sums up every noir detective film ever made. There’s a dame in need and a guy so blinded by her beauty or her lies or his own emotions that he postpones thinking until it’s too late, until he’s in too deep. But while the premise is pure noir formula what Pynchon created and what Anderson does with the book are anything but formulaic.

In legal terms, inherent vice is:

"Hidden defect (or the very nature) of a good or property which of itself is the cause of (or contributes to) its deterioration, damage, or wastage. Such characteristics or defects make the item an unacceptable risk to a carrier or insurer. If the characteristic or defect is not visible, and if the carrier or the insurer has not been warned of it, neither of them may be liable for any claim arising solely out of the inherent vice."

The Pynchon Wiki suggests comparing it "with entropy. Everything declines. Everything falls apart. Everything goes wrong" or perhaps "as an analogy for the Christian doctrine of Original sin, which says that everyone is born sinful. Indeed, this is what Doc initially believes the phrase to mean when he wonders, 'Is that like original sin?' This theological interpretation raises the question, 'If vice is inherent, where do we locate virtue?'"

All those ideas float through the surreal fog of Anderson's film, which serves up a trippy mix of Sam Spade and The Dude or Raymond Chandler done as a Cheech and Chong movie. Another fresh twist Anderson brings to the genre is a female narrator who delivers unexpected insights and emotion in what’s been a male-dominated field.

Here's a sample: "Back when they were together she could go weeks without anything more complicated than a pout, now she was laying some heavy combination of face ingredients on Doc that he couldn’t read at all."

“Inherent Vice” is as epic and as carefully calibrated as Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” but deceptively so. Doc’s drugged stupor provides the misleading cover for a meticulously crafted film in which the chaos is perfectly structured, hazy events are rendered in sharp detail, and dialogue crackles with casual cleverness.

The ensemble cast is perfection, but Josh Brolin as Lt. Det. Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, who boasts that he's been described more than once as a "Renaissance cop" by the L.A. Times and who wears a big 'fro to advertise for local businesses on TV, threatens to steal the film. Also surprising turns by Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, and Martin Short.

"Inherent Vice" (rated R for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence) is so good and deliciously layered that for maximum enjoyment, see it twice.