You could try to summarize the plot of Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice, but it's almost beside the point.
If you were to try, though: it is 1970 in Gordita Beach, a (fictional) town on the edges of Los Angeles. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a broke stoner and private investigator whose ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) comes by to tell him a bunch of paranoid-sounding yarns about missing millionaires he has to check out. There are also Aryan Brotherhood bodyguards and Black Panthers, and there's Josh Brolin playing the straight-man cop Bigfoot Bjornsen and pretty women and a shadowy Chinese syndicate, maybe, called Golden Fang, or else they are just wealthy dentists.
Inherent Vice is sunshine noir that strongly evokes Robert Altman's 1973 The Long Goodbye, in which a hapless California detective isn't totally amazing at his job and seems to squint at the sun and get distracted a lot. This is unsurprising—Anderson has long cited Altman as one of his influences and was an additional director on Altman's last film, A Prairie Home Companion.
Just as The Long Goodbye is based on a 1953 Raymond Chandler novel, Anderson's film is based on a Thomas Pynchon novel published in 2009. And that's not where the similarities end.
(If a whiff of the term “postmodernism” makes you break out in hives, abandon ship now, because that's what we're about to talk about.)
Pynchon is one of the most well-known of the postmodern novelists, embodying some of the most prevalent features of the literary era: name-checking commercial brand names as a critique of capitalism; an emphasis on form over content; and, most importantly, a mining of the past for devices to use in sometimes-anachronistic ways for a story, an aesthetic style called “pastiche.” Basically, postmodernists are uninterested in what any particular story “gets wrong” about a time period. In a mediated culture like ours, where pictures and images are so important, the past exists as a treasure trove of styles, images, and ideas that they can paste together to make a story.
Altman's Long Goodbye took a novel about 1950s private eye Philip Marlowe and dropped him down into 1970s Los Angeles. He smokes. He dresses like Don Draper. He drives a car from the 1940s. He talks like a private eye from a noir. But around him is health-conscious California, beach babes and muscly guys, yoga and definitely no tobacco, but nobody talks about it. Only the viewer sees it. (And it's hilarious.)
Inherent Vice's Doc Sportello is not historically anachronistic; that is left for Bjornsen, who still wears a suit and thinks the world is coherent, at least for most of the film. But as Jeff Reichert put it in Reverse Shot, Pynchon's theme is “the never wholly graspable entropic forces that define how moments of insurrection against establishment are slowly asphyxiated.”
That is, like many postmodern novelists, Pynchon is obsessed with portraying how we are slowly poisoning ourselves to death with amusement, how our comfortable late-modern lives have the edges rounded off, as Baudrillard would have it. We don't have to deal much with the harsh edges of reality, and we're sort of shocked when we do.
(Do you doubt this? Did you have to fight off a grizzly bear on the way to work this morning? Did you draw your water up by bucket from a well three hours from your house this morning? Do you, like Louis C.K.—like me—moan when there isn't fast-enough wireless internet on your airplane ride? I thought so.)
In Inherent Vice, this takes the form of drugs, mostly: lots of weed, and other things, too. Frankly, I lost track pretty early of what was an illegal substance and what was okay. Doc has lost track of reality, too. His experience is bewildering enough that at some point in his investigation of a disappearance, he scribbles on his pad, “Is This Real?” Or is it just a drug trip?
I don't know what a drug trip is like. But in Inherent Vice, Anderson is less interested in helping you follow the story than in evoking Doc's experience, leaving you spinning, wondering what you've missed, and whether This Is Real. Did you miss part of the story? Were the clues there all along? Should you just sink into this couch?
This all makes total sense for an Anderson movie. First off, Anderson has proven many times that he's wonderfully nostalgic for things he never lived through (he was born in 1970, the year in which Inherent Vice is set). But from Boogie Nights to There Will Be Blood to The Master, Anderson excels at evoking the feel of eras he couldn't possibly have known, primarily because—as he has said—he watched films from those eras incessantly as a child.
So Anderson's 1970s Los Angeles is actually the 1970s L.A. he got from films about L.A. in the 70s—and I'm also gonna go ahead and wager that Chinatown (1974) is among the films he watched. That is almost the apex of postmodernism: accessing the past through images of it, then replicating that past based on those images. It's what it means to have a “mediated” experience.
Understand, I'm not critiquing this, just saying that Anderson is the perfect interpreter of Pynchon and probably of many other postmodern writers; every time I see a shooting star or blow out a birthday candle, I wish for Anderson to direct the inevitable HBO miniseries adaptation of David Foster Wallace's magnum opus, Infinite Jest. Anderson's hand on Inherent Vice is so confident, so comfortable, that you aren't left reeling. The narrative style, in which everything seems like it should be making more sense than it is, lulls you into a state of panicked complacency not unlike what Doc is experiencing.
That state of panicked complacency—in which cause and effect no longer seem to go together—actually, the entirety of Inherent Vice reminded me of Joan Didion's opening description of 1967 San Francisco in her dead-serious essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”:
The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misplaced even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers . . . People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves.
It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job . . .
A few years later, in her essay on Los Angeles in the summer of 1969, “The White Album,” Didion characterizes the city and its inhabitants this way:
We tell ourselves stories in order to live . . . We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.
Or at least we do for a while . . .
Didion, who may or may not been part of drug culture in Hollywood at the time, was nonetheless a victim of it and of this panicked complacency, the feeling that the world could be ending but maybe wasn't. “I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it,” she writes. “I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no 'meaning' beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience.”
“In this light,” she says, “all narrative was sentimental. In this light all connections were equally meaningful, and equally senseless.”
Inherent Vice is sensible and senseless, not as much a story as an experience of one. The connections aren't clearly there; the flash pictures could maybe be in variable sequence, even if they are moving along time chronologically. If there's anything left on the cutting-room floor, it's not clear what it is.
But in that way, Inherent Vice is the perfect movie for us now. I don't know about you, but I have trouble remembering whatever the Internet was incensed about yesterday, let alone last week. I access the world beyond my fingertips through images and videos and clickthroughs on Facebook. I watch protests happen on the screen of my phone. I hear about things happening, and have trouble tracing a narrative onto them. I try to tell myself stories so I can live.
I feel grateful, these days, this Advent, for the gift of a Story that makes sense of it all.
Finally, a note for fellow nerds, take it from one of Paul Thomas Anderson's biggest fans: this is undoubtedly a work of genius, on the Boogie Nights level, not that it should surprise anyone. It's also screamingly funny in places. There are amazing actors in it. Robert Elswit shot it and Jonny Greenwood scored it. I utterly lost it in Josh Brolin's scenes.
But I can't say I actually enjoyed watching it as much as some of Anderson's other films, including The Master—and hence the three stars. Then again, I am definitely looking forward to seeing it again.
Sex, an extended scene of female nudity, all of which feels kind of misogynistic, though it's being played that way on purpose. Lots of profanity and suggestive talk. Plenty of drugs. Violence of various sorts: not graphic, especially given the subject, but there. Please, please, do not take your kids.
Alissa WIlkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She writes CT's “Watch This Way” blog and tweets @alissamarie.