There’s nothing novel or clever in noting that Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 film, Inherent Vice, owes a great deal to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, but you also can’t ignore their relationship. They’re variations on the same theme, fragmented detective stories that see the noir trailing off into the ill-defined haze of 1970s America. They share visual motifs, too, such as their fascination with the inscrutable, overwhelming ocean, filmed in wide shots where human beings appear extraordinarily fragile.
Anderson’s attentiveness to that fragility has been his great strength as a filmmaker, but his films have struggled to build discrete moments of human observation into works of dramatic and thematic momentum. In Pynchon’s novel, Anderson finds a structure that makes sense of his appetite for controlled chaos, allowing him to chase the emotional and psychological undercurrents that have always been his primary fascination within a functional narrative structure.
Inherent Vice offers an epic portrait of political and personal confusion, a story powered by the energies of human irrationality. Its vision of American history is all too recognizable: a random collision of desires and agendas that forms a comprehensible chain of events but denies us the comfortable coherence of unified conspiracy.
In the midst of the madness, desperate people try to survive and maybe even find peace of mind. That Inherent Vice suggests that there might be a way to get past the darkness stands in contrast with Altman’s bitter Long Goodbye. This also has the effect of making Inherent Vice the more melancholy, moving film; tragedy hurts more when it doesn’t feel inevitable.