Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Freak: Inherent Vice Comes to the Big Screen


Inherent Vice, Warner Bros., 2014

by Albert Rolls

In a poem from early in her career, Molly Peacock makes reference to the “gentle fit/of tension and satisfaction” that one feels “in/ the reading of a novel’s last pages.” While the poem’s primary concern is related to another issue, Peacock momentarily asks us to reflect on the dual nature of closure, the tension between our desire to find out what will happen and wanting the story to go on coupled with the satisfaction of seeing everything tied together. Peacock was, I suspect, thinking of the classic novel, a book with a plot that we, leaving Peacock behind, can imagine being readily translated into the kind of movie that can generate Oscar buzz and capture the attention of a popular audience. Watching the last minutes of such movies, after all, produces a feeling similar to the one Peacock associates with reading. The pleasure of watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, much like the pleasure of reading Pynchon’s novels, is, however, to be found elsewhere, and those who insist on having tidiness of structure and an ending that unites the various elements of the story into some satisfying whole are likely to find Inherent Vice frustrating.

The film is, nonetheless, fascinating, not least because it is about something other than its plot, the incidents of which are set in motion when Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who asks him to help prevent a plot against her boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). His wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her boyfriend (Andrew Simpson) are apparently going to have Mickey committed and take control of his fortune. Before Doc even has a chance to look into the matter, both Shasta and Wolfmann go missing, and one of his body guards, Glen Charlock, whom Doc has been asked to contact on an unrelated matter, is murdered, a crime Lieutenant “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) initially accuses Doc of committing. Taking its cue not simply from the novel but also from The Big Sleep — about which Anderson said at the press conference on the day of Inherent Vice’s NYC premiere, “I couldn’t follow any of it, but it didn’t matter because I just wanted to see what was going to happen next” — Inherent Vice’s incidents pile onto each other as Doc is drawn into other cases, all of which turn out to be obliquely related to Mickey’s and Shasta’s disappearance through their apparent connection to the Golden Fang, the drug cartel that has an interest in numerous aspects of American life. One of them is dentistry, and the film, proving its value as a piece of Pynchon criticism, offers a reason for that interest that will seem obvious after hearing it but that likely escaped the notice of the novel’s readers.

As Doc investigates his cases — which, with the exception of that of Hope (Jena Malone) and Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), get or don’t get resolved off screen without Doc’s help — the film suggests that the real interest of the narrative is the relationship between Doc and Bigfoot. It permeates the action of Anderson’s version of Pynchon’s story much as the Golden Fang’s influence permeates Doc’s various cases, drawing out an element of the novel that I have written about elsewhere from a different angle and that the trailer calls our attention to when it follows a clip of Coy bluntly raising the issue of which side he is on with a clip in which Doc says, “Good question.” The question becomes, in a sense, which side should we situate Bigfoot on. The last scene — a sort of inverted and visually intense version of Shasta’s accusation in the novel that Doc is a cop who wants not to be a cop (See IV, 313) — leaves the viewer wondering if Bigfoot is a sort of hippie freak who never wanted to be a hippie freak.

About the Author:

Albert Rolls is an independent writer, scholar and researcher. He is also Editor-in-Chief at AMS Press.