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308359.1913

Necessary intro to any post V. diatribe: California was invented by pen, written by the hand of saga-scribe de Montalvo of Spain, who heard an Eden existed at the other coast of the recently conquered America. He never ended up visiting the 'state' he named, instead the conquering Spaniards did it for him, fact from fiction. 

Conspiracy junkies unite as P.T. Anderson finally breaks free of his 5-picture somber-zone and lurches out a semi-carefree hit on fellow Kalifornian Pynchin. Adapting great novels (in this case, a 'great' novelist) has never been easy. Who loves the filmed versions of Bonfire of the Vanities, Love in the Time of Cholera (perversely, adapted from a translation) or this past year's Winter's Tale? Great novels tank their screen versions because either they can't be gapped (can't be understood without the full story being told) or are exotically difficult to gap (the construction into a new medium - "difficult to adapt" is on the coroner's report). Compressing a long-winded masterpiece is nearly impossible, yet the allure makes them difficult to ignore. Like the bullseye at a targeting range, a male's shooter Holy Grail-complex surrounds them. With Pynchon it isn't so much how but why? Why tackle this lunacy? These are impossible visual feats written in the wit of the moment. Why make visible what dances so weirdly along a page? You think you can match this guy Pynchon, move for move? Well. Mr. Anderson (you can almost hear Agent Smith goading him) has made a film for the believers, the boomers that bought all those Pynchon books and raised momentary hell in the divorcees 70s.

Equal parts hubris and adoration drive this fender-bender of a flick. The underplaying of Pynchon's hep stat-ttire works and doesn't work in the filmed version (the paradox goes long - it's still a vast improve on the recent religious zeal he's been draining since Magnolia). In many ways, the earlier movies play far more like Pynchon than this one does.  Inherent Vice unspools more like a filmed novelization parodying Pynch than any stand-alone adapt, maybe it's even a photo-novel (see below) rather than any straight 'adaptation.'  There is no brilliant diagrammatic oversight (Sortilege's bland incremental 'faulty' narrator doesn't pull it off) or central visual metaphor that keeps the plot tone (well maybe the Fang's boat, oversight slipping in from Hubbard's fantasy of sea-faring eternity, remember, Vice's opening shot is of the ocean, and glance at all those knick-knacks and lampshade: ocean, ocean, ocean). But Anderson has a full plate to deal with, rounding out the story with a grand cast of two-to-three scene cameo-players surrounding Joaquin Phoenix's Doc Sportello. As in all Pynchon (either the caper novels or his elite epics), plot is dense and disguise is endemic. Who means whom to who? Unfortunately irony guest stars and deadens every role as P.I. Sportello plays outsider while behaving insider (here's one example: informer/sell-out Owen Wilson is leap-frogged by Doc Sportello's metaphysical resurrecting of him to Brolin's copper Bigfoot.) We're meant to identify Sportello with hippies, but he's far too double-agent'd to make that identity clear. When Martin Donovan's Crocker Fenway glibly paints Sportello with "people like you lose all claim to respect the first time they pay anybody rent" you realize the whole shebang is an illusion. Even Pynchon doesn't buy all the contrasts he's typing across everyone's foreheads. The film can't bridge Pynchon's psychic purity (built mostly for laughs and rooting for the 'heroes') to our reality, so it just regresses to illustrative, the film plays out like those one-note religious pamphlets that hark about repentance. Sure you might laugh at their gimmickery, but somewhere, other people buy this malarkey.

The flick fails through its actors. Barely any of the performances register the easy-going aftermath of the Tate-Manson-Altamont exchanges. Owen Wilson, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro all behave as if the acid failed them decades ago. The bad news is Wilson's in the wrong movie since he doesn't really perform, he pretends. 'He's' an east-coast/texas-toast affectation crashing a best-coast opera of shrugs and winks. And the misses get more than a few shots to get it right: both he and Brolin play other people on TV (in different genres). And Brolin and Del Toro can't seem to quite find a toe-hold on the material with the film sliding somewhere between screwball and brightly lit 'dark' post-modernism. Brolin meanders between meaty and overdone (he's more from Kurtzmann's Humbug than Gaines's MAD). Visual gimmicks only intermitently work, especially self-torpedoing is a last supper retread photo-ministration that triangulates Wilson - it falls dead on arrival. (at the screening i saw, snickers of derision came with that pop-junk). That leaves the chicks to pick up the slack and some of them can hack it. You believe, despite their enforced roles as sex-toys, they exist far more than the men. (Well, Joanna Newsom is so self-conscious, so into herself, she brings us right back to 2014 only moments after the film begins. No wonder nobody digs her. And we can't shake her because she's locating us as narrator. It should be cryptic, her detailings, the way Linda Manz zonked us in Days of Heaven, but all she does is give away the house, graffitied in bad astrology. It's a trap for any performer. For a non-actor like her, we get the sense it's stage-talk, listening to her between songs during a set.  The effect resembles voiceing over Deckard in the producer's cut of Blade Runner. She's the pivot against Sportello, "the catch right under his nose," but the acting styles don't meet. You keep thinking Newsom's going to whip out her iPhone and find an address: 2014 calling 1970. Erps! She wasn't even IN the car!)

Yet with all those performances, there are no jaw-dropper types in the bunch that really happen (honorable mentions: Martin Short, the Doc at the Hospital whispering along with the movie-within-movie, and the female impersonator on the phone). Certain scenes lack laughs and then have to pay with exposition, others get guffaws and others face-plant. The worst of it yacks rote sentimentalism for the 70s (a terrible sin, employing Pynchon for this). All of us are missing the true unpredictability, the palm-sweating films of the era came with. Altman, Chandler, Coen Bros., Penn, Ashby and Pynchon all blur into sometimes plausible characterization and possible double-crosses (both on the audience and those up on screen). Leading the cameos is Martin Short who especially lets it rip, leading everyone to a backlit cop pullover under the effects of OP VIGILANT CALIFORNIA. (alot of this stuff is registered by viewing The Tube - the film's best moments involve cathode rays on celluloid fix). There's even some DNA of Chinatown's: a medical cabal leads to a dual Japanese Zen and faked early Hindu swastika cult luring millionaires to their liquidation. Long Good Goodbye by way of blotter, except lacking Zsigmond's luxurious and decayed wide ratios. Denseness comes in the movie's cake frosting: the set design frames out loads of detail, but to what effect? Sportello's even got a gun-shaped california kitchen kut-out. Pop-70s goes 1:1.85 in Tati-brightness, yet it reads mostly like memory glitches made from postcards. Frames but no framework. A similar plot to Vineland is in effect as idolized women are loved across political spectrums: idolized girl-stealing Mickey Wolfman is Vice's version of 1989's Brock Vond. Endless 'nothing is what it seems'-isms guide both tales. 

Maybe this was the one to commit to 70mm 'scope. Not that scatter about Hubbard in The Master... pull the camera back just a bit, give it room to breath. Don't explain it to us during late-edit dissolve-ins you shot to patch things together, let us head scratch. And darken it all, it's so damn bright. And make sure these actors are scared-paranoid. Only some of them are gripped with the fear that goes along with Pynchon's desire for total anonymity. (When Jade asks for a ride out of the weird atmosphere of a party, we don't feel her threat level [she's scared? a performer of cunnilingus for bikers?] but we should, and then some.)  Maybe that's the problem here, Anderson not taking Pynchon seriously enough. Underneath all those freaky names and overt satire lurks rage against control. Can you make fun of satire? Or do you engage with it directly. Missing here was the aura of Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Night Moves or Three Days of the Condor - unremitting paranoia appearing in casual situations gone mad. Anderson had to go a step further and bridge it to stoner excess where it becomes zany, but he doesn't even come close to level A. Stoner paranoia has a level-head at its core, and that means scary B-movies hide in each of Pynchon's books, just waiting to be taken seriously. Here under Elswit's lens it succumbs to pop-art. Maybe Anderson should have tried an epic of Pynchon's, like the beatnik serious-crossed-gonzo V. instead of the light mystery of Vice. Where is Anderson's pont-of-view here? This feels like dry, canonical Pynchon, set in mortar the way those Jackson-Tolkein megatoy spectacles vibrate in some kind of geeky religious fever.

Or maybe the problem is deep in Pynchon's rhetoric. Clearly he's written himself into these tomes. Here he' avatared by Sportello (in Vineland it's Zoyd), antagonized by square jawed Dick Tracy conjurings like Brock, Bigfoot and Wolfman. . isn't Doc the same archetype as Woody Allen's, only driving another genre? Chicks are objectified. Guys will lazily try anything to get laid. Drug culture stratifies the cast into an us vs. them gap. And it reads like Burroughs meets MAD Magazine. Still, at the core: very dark comedy clouding a persona. Maybe Pynchon's the one whose dated the whole enchilada with his worshipful rubber stamp "TP." It may be set in the 70s but it smells like the 50s to me.

Kaufmann's remarkable Body Snatchers in foto-novel form. 70s paranoia made mass market.

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