Saturday, June 6, 2015

Vice Squad

I've been a big Tom Pynchon fan since I read Crying of Lot 49 in college. Just a tip if you're thinking of checking him out, Crying is a very short, very finishable novel that is nonetheless just a crazy as anything he's written. But I even finished Gravity's Rainbow. Paul Thomas Anderson made Inherent Vice (2014) from Pynchon's latest - it's also one of the most accessible, and mostly optimisitic, and maybe my favorite.

It takes place in Gordita Beach, early 70s. Joaquin Phoenix is doper detective Doc Sportello. He is just staring at the wall when into his life walks Shasta Fay, his ex-old-lady. She's played by Katherine Masterson, a free-spirit hippie chick who cut her hair and hooked up with a real-estate guy, Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts). Doc, on the other hand, is true to the spirit of the 60s, with Neil Young muttonchops and messy hair that he spends a lot of time on - bell-bottoms and bare-feet, sticky with beach tar.

So Doc has to find Wolfman, and an unrelated (?) junkie surf-band sax player (Owen Wilson), probably deceased. He also meets a very nice Asian masseuse and finds out who is behind the Golden Fang (or does he? (Yes (it's Martin Short.))).

That kind of recursive, elusive, paranoid conspiracy vision is what Pynchon is all about. I don't think Anderson was quite able to capture the whole density of secrets, agendas, hidden messages that the books get across. For example, in the book, the Owen Wilson character seems mythical - a rumor, a shape in the shadows, a ghost, maybe even the resurrected Christ. Anderson puts him into a last supper scene, but doesn't manage to get the mystic dimensions. I haven't seen any of his other movies (funny, huh?), but I suspect he's too much of a literalist. Maybe Wes Anderson would have had more luck.

But PTA does a great job with the actors. Phoenix makes a great Sportello, and Masterson sells the hippie femme fatale, which cant have been an easy job. But my favorite is Josh Brolin as Detective Bigfoot Bjornson. Every private eye needs a cop who is part nemesis, part buddy, and Bigfoot is Doc's Lestrade. He is loud, violent, and ultraconservative, although he plays a hippie on TV. He is also pretty funny - a lot of the time you might otherwise forget that this is really a comedy.

So, I'm sorry that PTA couldn't quite get the woozy stoned feeling I was hoping for - the closest he comes is some odd framing choices, where a new character is introduced but the camera keeps cutting his head off. Still, I had fun watching this and hope it leads to a Pynchon movie craze, like the one for Philip K. Dick.

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