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Director struggles with screen adaptation of 'Inherent Vice'
Joaquin Phoenix, left, portrays private eye Doc Sportello and Benicio Del Toro portrays Sauncho Smilax, esquire, in “Inherent Vice.” - photo by Warner Brothers Pictures

‘Inherent Vice’

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterson and Reese Witherspoon

Running time: 148 minutes

Rated: R for drug uses, nudity, language adult themes

Grade: B-minus

When it comes to talking about Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice,” the question is whether to hail the director for attempting the impossible or chide him for failing to accomplish the improbable.

Anderson has managed to bring to life certain elements of Pynchon’s tale of private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), set against the transitional period of 1970 in Los Angeles. The world is swinging from free love and mind-altering drugs to a more civilized and paranoid approach to the world and Sportello is caught like a paper boat in an eddy between all of the changes.

The director has captured the quirkiness of Pynchon’s characters, from the gritty Lt. Det. Chrisian Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) to the perverted Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short). And casting Phoenix to play the emotionally and mentally fuzzy Sportello was smart, giving the director the actor he needed to portray a character who is one bad trip away from ending his life or becoming a legend.

What hurts the film is Pynchon’s work goes far deeper than the superficial characteristics of the odd players. His writing is like a literary algorithm where the closet connection between two characters isn’t a straight line. Themes, plot elements and storylines often start, stop, back up and disappear in Pynchon’s writing and that doesn’t easily adapt into the linear world of filmmaking.

Anderson has put together a film that comes as close. Although Spotello’s investigations serve as a through thread, Anderson never hesitates to branch off into the odd and obscure.

Absurdity is embraced in some scenes and rejected in others. In a scene where a woman is showing Sportello photos of her child, he screams violently at the sight of the child. Seconds later the conversation returns to a more organized thought pattern.

Phoenix is one of the few actors who can so effortlessly drift from the real to the surreal and back again without creating the kind of jolt that shakes an audience out of the flow. As long as his performance doesn’t come off the literary rails, then the production continues to move along its unconventional way.

In any other film, Brolin’s performance as the hardened police officer would be a farce. Within the cocoon of Pynchon’s writing and Anderson’s stylized direction, Brolin’s creepy and kooky cop is mesmerizing.

There are no meaningless or wasted moments. Something as simple as Sportello being involved with the free-spirited Shasta (Katherine Waterston) and the hard-nosed Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) represents a complicated theme. In this case it represents the transition that the world is going through — from the spiritual and sexual freedom to the begins of a more controlled and uptight era.

Trying to figure out all themes will prove a chore. Even repeated readings of Pynchon’s books don’t guarantee a complete enlightenment. That means it’s the chase that is more fascinating than the discovery, an approach Anderson used in writing his screenplay and making the movie.

Like a well-designed dust jacket, a cursory look at “Inherent Vice” reveals a colorful world filled with promise of even more as the inside unfolds. It takes a brave and open mind to plow into the product knowing that not everything will have a natural connection. It’s those voids that make Pynchon’s writing so fascinating and so hard to adapt to film.

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