“As one who's been down that particular exit ramp,” Hope advised, “you can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, then you've got to get back up into the freeway again.”- Inherent Vice, p.40
Reading Thomas Pynchon can be a strange ride. Some of his books like Bleeding Edge (2013) can be boulevards of regret, but when a movie based on Pynchon's, Inherent Vice (2010) is released, it is time to get back up on that freeway. When I read the book a few years ago, I found it one of his best efforts, if not his most accessible book next to The Crying of Lot 49 (1966).
I even keep a copy of the audio book in my car at all times to pop in on long trips, just to enjoy the language. Since I've already read it, I can flip in any disc – no need to worry about plot - and just cruise with the narrator Ron McLarty who does all the voices and even sings the surfer tune, "Soul Gidget."
Understandably, I have been reading movie reviews of Inherent Vice with some interest. Not because I was going to rely on some critic to make the call on whether to go or not, but I was curious on whether the reviewers had actually read the book before passing judgment. Moreover, I won a pair of free film passes from A Cappella Books here in Atlanta. (Thanks, Frank.)
Any movie that is based on a book must factor in the reaction from those who have read the book. But we're not talking Harry Potter or Gone Girl in terms of popularity here. I rarely meet anyone who has read more than one of his books and most of the time it is a negative reaction. I have since given up trying to convince anyone that he's worth the effort.
Simply put, with Pynchon there are only two things that you have to appreciate to plow through his books: a.) his erudite, word-playing and world-encompassing style, which riffs on any subject in all-knowing smart-ass tone and b.) the obsessive preoccupation of paranoia, all at the expense of engaging main characters and a driving plot. So what could I expect when I went to see Paul Thomas Anderson's film starring Joaquin Phoenix's as Doc Sportello, the stoned private investigator hired by his ex-girlfriend Shasta to find a missing real estate millionaire?
Anderson does an admirable job capturing the spirit of Pynchon's prose on film. Pynchon isn't easy to translate. To help, Anderson incorporated a female narrator Sortilege, which threw me because I didn't remember whether such a character existed in the novel (was I like Sportello and forgetting things?). Anderson uses Sortilege as a device to incorporate Pynchon's vernacular. Later at the exact moment when a characters says the “boulevards of regret” line in the movie, I felt that Anderson was faithful in the area that mattered most – the language. And Doc is more than “The Dude” in a stoner movie as there are some actually touching moments (and a disturbing violent one – so be warned). The part when Doc thinks longingly about Shasta with Neil Young singing the haunting “Harvest” on the soundtrack is especially somber and memorable.
I am glad to see someone appreciate Anderson's efforts because he has been nominated for the Oscar of best adapted screenplay, though several reviewers (one from The Chicago Tribune and another from The Minneapolis Star Tribune insisted that Pynchon devotees would be dissatisfied. There was no indication that either has read the book.
At least Michael Phillips from The Chicago Tribune does a fair assessment of how Inherent Vice works as a movie (he writes later about the lack of plot in Boyhood). I agree that I cannot wholeheartedly endorse the movie – it's long, and there are moments of questionable taste, but the cameo performances by Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Martin Short and Maya Randolph are all zany fun. I didn't even mind Owen Wilson and I think Owen Wilson is the biggest non-talent in Hollywood. A more positive review of the movie comes from Manohla Dargis of The New York Times who indicates she read the book. Dargis even gets additional credibility points by referencing another one my favorite writers, Joan Didion. (Both Didion and Inherent Vice examine "the end of the 60s.")
I will reserve final judgment until I see the movie again at home. If you want to see it on the big screen, and not that you have to, you had better hustle out to the multi-plex because the box office numbers aren't robust. Perhaps the most compelling reason to make the trek is that you might run into a few Pynchon aficionados out there. They will be easy to find – the theatre will probably be nearly empty and they will probably be following along in their books with florescent hi-lighters, and like me, revisiting some of their favorite passages from this polarizing writer.