At the Movies

Michael Wood

There is a difference between being slow and being sluggish, although it’s not easy to define. Perhaps we’re sluggish if we’re failing to make progress. If we’re slow, there may not be any progress to make. In a slow movie, we can pay attention to the scenery, the outfits, the accents and think about what’s in the corner of the frame. We can remember there used to be something called a Princess phone, even if the name doesn’t come to us straightaway when we see a private detective using it all the time, making it his best supporting actor. In a sluggish movie we keep looking at our watch and it seems to have stopped. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is more slow than sluggish but pretty sluggish all the same.

Anderson wrote the adaptation himself and clearly loves the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel he is adapting. He follows its plot and quotes from it a good deal. He even invents a voiceover narrative so that he can quote more. This device is so creaky that it’s attractive, and it’s not a bad movie translation of Pynchon’s antique (that is, 1970s-sounding), slangy prose. The narrator, our ears tell us, is one of the characters, an ex-girlfriend with psychic gifts whom the hero treats as another person would his analyst. She’s called Sortilège, it says in the credits (and in the novel), although all I heard is the name Lige, pronounced ‘leej’. She has all kinds of good lines, but there is a narrative promise in such a role that the film can’t keep. This becomes a problem, in spite of the charm of the old device. A person who is in the story is also outside the story. She must know something, must have a reason for her extra assignment. She doesn’t, she just talks now and then.

This isn’t her fault: the movie doesn’t have any extra knowledge to give her. The trouble is, it doesn’t know what to do with the plot it doesn’t care about. Pynchon simultaneously sets up and solves the same dilemma by combining a parody of a hard-boiled detective novel with some disorderly chunks of the real thing. His hero has ‘a chronic problem telling one California blonde from another’, and we find it hard to distinguish among the supposedly different sets of semi-crooks, and between friends and foes. Is the cop who keeps harassing the private detective his nemesis or his best, brutal friend? The detective decides the cop is not his brother ‘but he sure needs a keeper’. His sidekick says: ‘It ain’t you, Doc.’ The detective says: ‘I know. Too bad, in a way.’ We don’t know whether this means friend or foe. Perhaps it means both, but the detective’s doped-out kindness is more interesting than the riddle.

The general model would be something like The Big Sleep: not the Raymond Chandler novel but the Howard Hawks movie that Chandler said he couldn’t understand, although he had worked on it. This effect is relatively easy to achieve in a book since the voice is not a voiceover, it’s a textual voice. The voice could be the novel. It’s obviously not impossible to get the effect on film, with or without voiceover, but it’s hard, and a movie plot that keeps getting lost is apt to feel just lost.

There are some great performances here from Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson. Phoenix is Doc Sportello, the private detective. His vast sideburns and crumpled denims make him look like a sheriff who has strayed from the old West and gone further west. Gone to pot too, as we might say, although he says he doesn’t do serious drugs any more. Just a lot of weed, a bit of laughing gas, and the occasional sniff of cocaine. He is a little spaced out even from this modest consumption, invariably late in focusing on whatever the matter in hand might be, but he seems fully even if sleepily aware of all the trouble he keeps letting himself in for. He takes a case with more threads and suspects than he (or we) can handle, and solves some of it in his own fashion. This fashion doesn’t please John Brolin as Bigfoot, the crony/tormentor cop, who wanted more arrests. Katherine Waterston is very persuasive as Doc’s returning old flame, a beach girl who has got herself involved in an elaborate scheme to take a rich man’s money from him; and Jena Malone as Hope Harlingen all but steals the film with her tale of how she met her husband, Coy, in the toilet of a club where he was playing in the band, all the drugs they did, and how she got her shiny new teeth. ‘Heroin,’ she says, ‘sucks the calcium out of your system like a vampire, use it any length of time and your teeth go all to hell. And that’s the good part.’ Now she’s clean and a drug counsellor. He’s supposed to be dead but she knows he’s not. One of Doc’s missions is to find him. Owen Wilson is the drawling, whispering man to be found, an informant to several different nefarious groups, and Doc certainly finds him, again and again. No allegory, least of all one constructed by Pynchon, would want Hope and Coy to stay apart for ever – this is the writer who invented the Hobbesian law firm of Salitieri, Poore, Nash, De Brutus and Short.

The plot we are not supposed to care about involves a real-estate baron, a drug cartel named the Golden Fang (as in vampire), and the FBI, who may be the worst villains of all because they wear suits and pick their noses, although not for those reasons alone. The satire becomes clear and effective at times. The rich man, tired of ruining the Los Angeles landscape and being a target for robbery, decides to give all his money away. This is the real problem, and the good guys and the bad guys get together to stave off this reprehensible act. We see and hear him for a moment, heavily drugged, barely coherent, scared.

The place he is kept allows for one of the two wonderful set-pieces in the film. It’s a hospital so white you have to keep thinking of Hope’s teeth, and Doc, following a sketchy clue or two, is pretending to be a future investor. He’s shown around by an unctuous doctor, sees a man with a swastika on his face (no, it’s a sign of peace, his guide says), and a group of patients dressed up as Tibetan monks – Owen Wilson is literally undercover here since they all have vast hoods. They have Chablis in the waiting-room, and the inmates watch terrible old movies all the time. This would be brainwashing if anyone had a brain left. Presumably all these patients were once very rich. It’s when he sees the FBI men in charge that Doc gets worried.

The other good set-piece is in a dentist’s office – a second home of the fang. The place is sumptuously decorated in the worst possible taste, the dentist wears a purple Beatles-era suit, screws his receptionist and his patients, and genially offers Doc a heavy snort of coke. The American Dental Association, it seems, is the cover-up organisation for all the evil-doing in the movie.

The best sustained joke, though, as distinct from these wild constructions, occurs when Doc meets not the real bad guy but a figure very high up in the bad-guy world. This is a man whose daughter Doc rescued from her wanderings in the past and returned to her loving family. It’s clear she was much better off wandering, but a detective’s insight can only go so far or come too late. In the old days she was a victim of the purple-suited dentist, and her father is eloquent in his distaste for such molesters: ‘The man preyed on an emotionally vulnerable child, tore her from the embrace of a loving family, forced her to engage in sexual practices that might appal even a sophisticate like yourself.’ Like Doc, that is, although it’s not the word anyone else would choose. There is worse, though, and now we enter the territory of The Big Lebowski. ‘How about when he forced my little girl to listen to original cast albums of Broadway musicals while he had his way with her? The tastelessly decorated resort hotel rooms he took her to during endodontist conventions? The wallpaper! The lamps!’ There’s vice for you. The italics are Pynchon’s, but you can hear them in the movie too.

In the film as in the novel Doc is told what the phrase ‘inherent vice’ means. Didn’t he know already? Didn’t we? I didn’t until I read the novel. It’s a term in maritime insurance for what can’t be helped, ‘what you can’t avoid’, and therefore can’t be insured. It applies to cargo and ships, and Doc thinks it might be used metaphorically for Los Angeles. Either the premium is going to be too high or nothing will be covered. Que sera, sera, as Doc says, quoting Doris Day, but he’s not a fatalist, he knows that what matters is not whether vice is inherent or not (‘like original sin’, he says in the novel) but who gets to include it in their calculations.