Inherent Vice: Film and Score Review
Man, was I looking forward to Inherent Vice. Like many people of my generation who got into film in the late 1990s, P.T. Anderson is a giant; he’s our exhibit A whenever we need to argue that we have auteurs who can step with the best of the ‘70s film brats. For that matter, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is on my personal shortlist of favorite books (I’m a bad Pynchon fan who prefers the later, shaggier books to the canonized masterpieces like The Crying of Lot 49; it’s sort of like being Rolling Stones fan who could take or leave Exile on Main Street but is really, really into A Bigger Bang). So when Paul Thomas Anderson announced plans to film Inherent Vice, seemingly months after its publication, I was needless to say excited. One of my favorite living authors adapted by one of my favorite living film directors – how often do those worlds converge?
Yet all throughout the hype, I had a hard time biting back a few reservations. Anderson had yet to make bad film, and his then most recent two – There Will Be Blood and The Master – are both frontrunners for the best films of the 21st century. Yet throughout the past decade, Anderson has also become an increasingly formal and deliberate director. While his films all have bracing moments of dark humor, none of them could be construed as light, fun, or whimsical (Punch-Drunk Love might comes the closest, but it takes a long, rage-fueled road to get to its happy ending). Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, on the other hand, for all of its darker satire and bittersweetness, is a breezy, daffy Krazy Kat comic strip in novel form. It doesn’t leave behind the grim paranoia or cynicism of the author’s earlier masterpieces, but its overall tone is one of warm, sentimental fondness for a lost anarchic sensibility. These aren’t qualities I associate with Anderson, and after watching his adaptation of the novel, it’s clear that I never will. The film of the Inherent Vice was clearly made by extraordinarily talented people, and it’s at the very least a fascinating experiment. But – at least on first viewing – my overall sense is that it’s an experiment that doesn’t work. Anderson and his collaborators have certainly poured as much of Pynchon’s prose as was possible onto the screen, but in attempting such a fastidious and literal adaptation, the filmmakers both suffocate the delicate tone of the book and lose any opportunity to make a film that works in its own right.
I’ll grant that on one hand it’s hard for me look at the film entirely objectively. There’s clearly a disconnect between what made the book special for me and what made the book special for Anderson. As a story, Inherent Vice places its finger on the transition between the freedom of the ‘60s and the paranoid cynicism of the ‘70s, and I suppose that how you interpret the book is going to depend on which side of that divide comes across more vividly for you. For me, the novel’s exuberant tone makes the whole enterprise feel much more like a warm embrace of the gleeful anarchy of a distant time than an anxious warning of the turbulent time to follow. Anderson, however, seems to have taken that vague sense of paranoia as his way into the story. While the director has kept some of the book’s humor in the form of outright slapstick, the film by and large takes a much more tense, heavy-handed tone than anything I remember from the novel. In the book, the convoluted conspiracy plot rarely feels like more than a loose framework to zip the reader through a series of crazed vignettes. Anderson ditches most of those vignettes, and instead pushes us through the conspiracy narrative step by step, as though he were making an actual thriller. Which by itself is fine – if the director is more interested thumbing through every layer of the Golden Fang conspiracy than he is in pondering why Donald Duck grows 5 O’Clock shadow when he’s lost at sea, well, it’s Anderson’s adaptation. But even allowing for this difference in interpretation, the slavishly literal-minded approach Anderson takes to this adaptation severely hinders his ability to make a film that works on its own terms.
Much of the problem comes from the near-reverential way the film handles Pynchon’s prose. Huge chunks of the novel are lifted verbatim for the film, delivered both by Joanna Newsom as the film’s narrator/chorus and by characters delivering long-winding expository monologues. While it’s easy to admire the director’s attempt at honoring the novel, the issue is that little of this prose was ever meant to be spoken. Pynchon is one of the best living prose stylists, but the quality of his writing largely comes across in the way his words, with their bizarre character names and comic-strip inspired mispellings, look on the page. But words that the eye leaps and stumbles over with giddy abandon when they appear on the page stall and putter when actors painstakingly deliver them, one by one, as though reciting from Shakespeare. In the film, huge chunks of exposition come out of the mouths of characters who rarely look 100% sure that they understand their own dialogue, and it kills the momentum that this material needs to work.
Furthermore, because Anderson largely relies on these nonsensical expository monologues to advance the narrative, the conspiracy plot becomes even more incomprehensible than it was in the book. This is especially an issue for Joaquin Phoenix who plays Doc Sportello, the film’s stoner P.I. hero. Phoenix is a talented actor with great comic timing, and his way with a double-take gives the film some of its biggest laughs. But his method actorly habit of mumbling incoherently, inspired though it was in The Master, is fatal when he’s mumbling crucial plot points here. And while it’s easy to sympathize with his constant look of panicked confusion, his erratic mugging also prevents him from becoming the laid-back grounded center that the story needs to anchor the surrounding chaos.
Granted, one could argue that the novel was just as guilty of mooring the audience in incomprehensible chaos, but momentum makes a big difference. In Pynchon’s novel, you don’t always know what’s going on, but you can still feel the tension mounting page by page, and when a character has to say something important, the novel makes sure you hear it with painful clarity. There isn’t any sense in the film, however, that any of these baffling plot pieces are heading anywhere. In one of the best scenes in the novel, Doc makes a near-impossible escape from and declares his allegiance to the Bugs Bunnies and Popeyes of the world. Though one may need to read the novel several times over to figure exactly why Doc was in captivity and who he was escaping from, Pynchon still makes that moment feel like a defining triumph that everything has been building to. Anderson treats it like just another scene, and one gets the impression that if you reshuffled the scenes and moved the escape to the beginning of the film, few would notice any difference in narrative momentum.
Ultimately, the biggest problems come from trying to make a painstakingly faithful and literal adaptation out of material that only really works when it feels like it’s being made up on the spot. People have drawn comparisons to Robert Altman’s revisionist Marlow ‘70s classic, The Long Goodbye, but where Altman clearly allowed improvisation to dictate the way he made his ambling gumshoe mystery, every scene in Anderson’s seems fussed over with meticulous deliberation – even when wacky things are happening on-screen. The film version of Inherent Vice almost seems like it comes from some distant future society that stumbled upon Pynchon’s novel and was under the impression that it was meant to be taken as a sacred hollow text, rather than a shambling shaggy dog paperback. Which, now that I’ve put it that way, actually makes me like the film a little better. And I will admit that for all of the harping I just did on the film, I do feel a nagging urge to watch it again. Certain filmmakers are powerful enough that even their misfires leave you with the sinking suspicion that you’re the one with the problem, and I may very well take back everything I just wrote months down the line. But as of now it’s hard not to see this as a noble misfire from a director who is apparently much better at following his own impulses than trying to honor somebody else’s.
Johnny Greenwood’s music encapsulates where I veer from this film. Greenwood is a brilliant musician and composer, and his past two scores for Anderson – There Will Be Blood and The Master – have been radically brilliant. But nobody could accuse Greenwood of having a light touch, and – for me anyway – a lighter touch is what Inherent Vice desperately needed. Greenwood’s music is far more conventional than anything he’s written for the director previously, but it’s no less heavy-handed. Granted, his anchoring theme for Doc’s ex-lady, Shasta, is certainly more accessible than anything he wrote for There Will be Blood – in fact, it’s probably the first piece of film music Greenwood’s written that could even reasonably called a “theme.” And on its own terms, it’s a subtly brilliant composition. Greenwood is a rare film composer who actually writes interesting orchestrations, and the creative interplay between oboes, woodwinds, and the string ensemble makes even a relatively subdued melody fascinating. But while beautiful in its own right, the piece also has an oppressively bleak quality that ultimately weighs the film down. Perhaps its meant to encapsulate the doomed nature of Doc’s pinning over Shasta or the even more doomed nature of Doc’s hippie existence, but these are hardly points that needed to be oversold. Rather than subtly drawing these themes out as the film progressed, the music sets a dour tone so early on that it nearly smothers any of the film’s attempts at humor right out of the gate.
That said, n individual scenes, the music can still be very effective – Anderson and Greenwood have worked out an enviable music-image relationship, and it’s a marvel to watch and listen as Greenwood’s long-lined cues to spool over from scene to scene while Doc proceeds in his investigations. At times, Greenwood seems to be channelling Bernard Herrmann’s romantic suspense music from the “following Madeline” scenes in Vertigo, and it’s hard not to admire any composer willing to tip his hat in that direction. At the same time, Vertigo isn’t exactly a classic stoner comedy, and as cue after cue continues this trend of dour melancholia or anxious suspense, the cumulative impact grows increasingly wearying. I’d like to admire the counter-intuitive logic in taking a period movie that seems to scream for psychedelic rock and scoring it with Herrmann-esque orchestral music, but the result comes across less as a clever joke and more as tonal indecisiveness.
Conversely, the period song selections are excellent, and the film comes alive considerably every time Anderson takes the jukebox approach to scoring the film. With a few exception, Anderson avoids obvious late ‘60s staples in favor of eclectic gems like Les Baxter’s exotica lounge number, “Simba,” or Minnie Riperton’s Motown classic, “Les Fleur.” The tone brights considerably every time one of these songs plays, hinting at the film we might have had if all parties involved had decided to let these bright moments guide the overriding tone. But – and I rarely find myself saying this – the songs are too few and far between. This is actually a film where I’d happily take less score if it meant hearing more great songs from the period.
Again, on its own terms, Greenwood’s music is great, and I recommend the album (though Radiohead fans should be warned that if you’re coming for Greenwood’s reworked rendition of “Spooks,” you will only get to hear it under Joanna Newsom’s narration). Greenwood and Anderson clearly have a great working dynamic, and I hope it continues into the future. But in this particular instance, I actually wish Anderson had returned to Jon Brion, his prior go-to composer. As his scores to films like Punch-Drunk Love and I Heart Huckabees demonstrate, Brion excels at music that balances offbeat humor with a melancholy underbite and his knack for balancing tonally tricky films likely would have served Inherent Vice well (it helps that Brion’s music often sounds like it was recorded by some long-forgotten ‘60s pop group). Greenwood, for all of his many qualities as a composer, feels like the wrong person for this project. And much as I’d love to be proven wrong, I think that statement ultimately goes for the director as well.
Film Grade: * * * / * * * * *
Score Grade: * * * /* * * * *