PTA distills the meandering, strung-out joy of Thomas Pynchon with Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice is one of those rare examples of cinema where the experience of the audience is entirely aligned with the experience of the film’s protagonist. This achievement should celebrated when found in great horror films, that terrify and alienate you along with their characters, or classics like Goodfellas, which follows sharp-edged cocaine dynamism with a grim, regretful coda that is felt as much as it is observed. But it’s a true achievement for a film as wilfully incoherent as this one, a film that swerves through a potentially coherent narrative with a nonchalance that obfuscates any details behind a thick cloud of pot smoke, all rendered with gorgeously grainy film and scored to a string of indelible 1970s pop classics.

Not that the experience created by Inherent Vice is suited to every audience member. Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film – adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name – drops you in the headspace of perpetually-stoned private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix); this means a luxurious glide through 70s California frequently interrupted by jolts of paranoia, dense, expository conversations that are near-impossible to follow (per Doc’s confused, digressive notes in his notebook) and the occasional beating from LAPD Detective “Bigfoot” (Josh Brolin). An encounter with an ex-girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), sends Doc deep into a tangled web of real estate deals and dope-dealing dentists; his consistent confidence that he’ll unravel the mystery is rarely correct. The net effect is confusing and intoxicating alike, and was met with both regular guffaws and unimpressed walk-outs at the screening I attended.

Whether it’s your bag or not, P.T.A. has conjured an experience that works its magic in remarkably consistent fashion. Most of those who’ve seen the film seem to talk about in the same kind of way. People talk about how watching the film is like being high (though the specifics seem to vary depending on a person’s own predilections; I’ve seen it compared to both marijuana and acid, and it wouldn’t at all surprise me to see a heroin user draw parallels to the drug). People talk about how the film seems to fade from memory after watching, its details dissipating like smoke. People talk about how the film’s tone darkens in the last third, how the film drags, how it becomes meaner, how that sparkling high fades away. (I could show my work here, but this ain’t a book report, so you’re just going to have to trust me.)

Those unimpressed by the film draw attention to its meandering narrative, how so much time is spent on laying out details that never quite seem to fit together. Or they talk about how its runtime drags, how the film wears out its welcome in its final act. I’d argue that these attributes are entirely intentional, simpatico with Doc’s strung-out experience throughout. All the pieces are there to be put together if you had time to pause and think, but trapped in Doc’s muddled, paranoiac brain, you’re never given the opportunity. The elliptical, enigmatic editing draws you away from the specifics that you can’t quite remember afterwards. The unpleasant awkwardness of the ending is intentional too, a harshing of one’s buzz that draws you towards Inherent Vice’s real purpose.

Inherent Vice has much in common with predecessors like The Big Lebowski and The Long Goodbye, each undeniably an influence on its tone and narrative alike. All three films are about a private investigator, each opening with their protagonist asleep (or, at least, supine – it’s possible that Doc is awake when Inherent Vice begins). They’re all about men out of time, men who stumble through a world that has outgrown them; Marlowe a hold-over from the 40s in the 70s, Lebowski a relic of the 60s lingering in the 90s. What separates Inherent Vice is that Doc, with his joints and his facial hair and his blasé attitude, should be of his time, but what we’re watching is how “his time” dies. How the hippie counter-culture is infiltrated by and annihilated by the police and the profiteers; those looking for free love simply because they don’t have to pay. Inherent Vice feels regretful because it’s not so much a story of the mystery Doc solves as a story of the society he belongs to evaporating before his eyes.

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