Thomas Pynchon has written eight acclaimed novels, but no one had the brass to adapt one for the screen until Paul Thomas Anderson tackled Inherent Vice. The director’s second consecutive collaboration with Joaquin Phoenix was the centerpiece gala at the New York Film Festival, where it made its world premiere on Saturday. If the trailer for the film gave off a Big Lebowski vibe, that’s partially because both films are at least partially inspired by The Big Sleep, the classic 1946 noir with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. “I saw The Big Sleep and it made me realize I couldn’t follow any of it,” said Anderson, at a post-screening press conference. “And it didn’t matter, because I just wanted to see what was going to happen next anyway.”
The plot of Inherent Vice is equally impenetrable, a tangled web strewn with vivid characters from 1970 Los Angeles. Phoenix plays ‘Doc’ Sportello, a constantly buzzed private eye who’s drawn into a case of coincidences by the beauty who broke his heart, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She’s been having an affair with a married billionaire (Eric Roberts) whose adulterous wife might want to put him away in a mental asylum in order to get all his money. When both Shasta and her billionaire boyfriend go missing, and Doc awakes from a blow to his head next to a dead body, he has to handle cops and killers, lawyers and sax players, Nazis and coke-headed dentists, and two mysterious entities known as the Golden Fang that may or may not have anything to do with each other.
The film is filled with humor, even as the stakes go up, the characters are stripped bare, and the haze of drug-use rises to fever-dream pitch. (There’s one sequence, with Martin Short’s unscrupulous dentist, that echoes the antsy psychedelia of Alfred Molina’s firecracker scene in Boogie Nights.) “Which is what I love so much about Paul’s work,” said Maya Rudolph, who plays Doc’s secretary. “It’s anything and everything, and yet it’s always his. It allows a scene like in Dr. Blaknoids office to be crazy and then something else to be dark and mysterious.”
“That’s Thomas Pynchon,” said Anderson, explaining the clever but often dissonant blend of humor and mood. “That’s what he does in his books, is that you have the kind of … beautifully written and sort of profound and deeply felt stuff, mixed in with just the best fart jokes and poop jokes and silly songs and stuff that you can imagine. We were doing an adaptation of the book and we trying to do that, so that’s where that stuff comes from—trying to be as faithful to the feeling of the book as possible.”
Phoenix’s Doc is a “paranoid hippie” with muttonchops, Sideshow Bob’s hair, and Hunter S. Thompson’s wardrobe. He gets to say lines like, “Deaf and dumb is part of my job,” all the while getting slapped by women, pummeled by cops, and cornered by nosy feds. The story is his, but the narrator is his wise gal-pal, Sortilège (singer Joanna Newsom). “Somewhere along the way, I was just looking to try to do something and have a good female voice come in,” said Anderson. “For a long time, I was told that if you used voiceover, that’s a no-no. Somebody ingrained that in my mind. I think the premise was that you have to have your characters do the work for you, that you can’t rely on the narrator to do it. … But all of my favorite films use a narrator and narration, and I was always paranoid to do it it until now, where there was so much good stuff that that character could say that was from the book that seemed helpful to the story and wouldn’t step on it or irritate it or subtract from what was going on but hopefully add to it at its best.”
Phoenix could’ve used the narrator at the press conference. He appeared but never uttered a word, forcing the large supporting cast to fill in his silences. The only information he communicated at all was when he belatedly raised his hand to indicate that he’d read Pynchon’s book—something that not everyone else in the cast could claim. “I had my assistant read it to me,” said Short. “That counts, from where I’m from.”
According to the actors, the film’s blend of hot and cold, chaos and order extended to the production. Michael Kenneth Williams, who plays one of Doc’s many clients, feared that the director simply didn’t like him. “I came in very intimidated,” he said. “To be invited to this table, to play with such amazing talents, so I came with a nervous energy.” (“I didn’t like you,” Anderson joked before apologizing, “Oh, that makes me feel terrible.”)
“I don’t think Paul went in to it knowing exactly what he wanted, because I think that he likes to experiment and have the possibility of interesting things happening on the day of and I think that’s what he wants to capture,” said Hong Chau, who plays an enthusiastic sex-shop worker.
Sometimes yes, sometime no. Benicio Del Toro popped in for his few days of work, playing a maritime lawyer who helps Doc when he gets in trouble, and was handed a three-page monologue. “I think someone once said that in order to learn your lines you need to repeat them 300 times,” he said. “By the end of the scene, we knew our lines.”
Yet, the film’s opening scene was a product of luck and spontaneity, with Newsom’s character establishing the setting while she sits at a park. “There was a passage that I think was intended to just be voiceover,” she said. “I didn’t have it memorized or anything. I just really quickly attempted and messed up a couple times and then finally, hopefully got it sort of right. And didn’t think anything else of it. I was 99 percent sure that that would not be in the movie, so there is a little bit a sense of floating on an instinct or opportunity.”
Vice represents a return to ensemble storytelling for the director, who seemed to employ half of Hollywood in films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia. His last three films, including The Master, have focused primarily on the two or three main characters. Vice‘s cast list also includes Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Jena Malone, Reese Witherspoon, and several other familiar faces. “It felt great, for the obvious reasons: getting to work with all these people,” said Anderson. “The only frustrating thing is that for most people, it was only about two or three days, which was a drag because just when you got started and you got excited, they leave on you and they go off to make other movies.”
“I was stuck with him mostly,” he added, referring to Phoenix.
Phoenix cracked a smile.