“Inherent Vice”: Chinatown in the Age of Aquarius

“Inherent Vice”: Chinatown in the Age of Aquarius

“That was the best stoner noir movie I’ve ever seen,” said a guy walking out of the Inherent Vice screening. Me too, I guess.

The 2009 novel that served as the new film’s basis was given the shrugging assessment of “Pynchon lite” by the New York Times, and if the resulting film is also “Paul Thomas Anderson lite,” that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Without heavy metaphysical baggage to tote, Inherent Vice is a sly escapist thriller for the art-house crowd. Go, and take a date: from the looks of the couples in the lobby of the Lagoon Cinema, the film left them hot and bothered and ready to go home and have some wordy sex.

Set in Los Angeles in 1970, the story centers on a hippie private dick nicknamed “Doc” (Joaquin Phoenix), who operates out of what is seemingly an actual doctor’s office while huffing what’s definitely actual laughing gas. Old friends—starting with an old friend-with-benefits (Katherine Waterston)—and frenemies begin tumbling back into his life as he’s slowly drawn into the case of the mysterious “Golden Fang.” The film has a lot of fun with Doc’s persistent uncertainty as to what precisely the Golden Fang is: it might be a drug cartel, a boat, a medical association, a shagadelic office building, a literal golden fang, or all of the above.

The two-hour film tumbles along in a parade of recognizable faces playing supporting roles: there’s Reese Witherspoon as Doc’s nice-girl lady friend, Owen Wilson as a nervous informant gone underground, Joanna Newsom as the film’s earth-goddess narrator, Benicio del Toro as Doc’s attorney (specializing in marine law, which is what you get when you can’t pay much for representation), Maya Rudolph as the clinic’s awkward receptionist, and the list goes on. Martin Short relishes in his all-too-brief appearance, becoming the second of the Three Amigos to play an ethically questionable dentist.

Inherent Vice is thick with atmosphere and period detail, but it wears it lightly—whatever the previous record was for the number of hippie jokes in a movie that can possibly be taken seriously, Anderson has just shattered it. This story belongs to the family of whodunit that’s more about the picaresque journey than the bullet-ridden destination, and Anderson makes each scene its own absorbing stopping point.

The most salient point of reference here isn’t The Maltese Falcon or even Chinatown, though—it’s The Big Lebowski, another eccentric SoCal story with a supremely chill lead who’s drawn against his will into an absurdly convoluted web of sex and violence to the strains of a laconic soundtrack of sax and violins. (The score here, in addition to period tracks by the likes of Neil Young, is by Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood, a longtime Anderson collaborator.)

Anderson, though, eschews the Coen Brothers’ flamboyance in favor of a wry but wistful, often tender, intimacy. The climax of his film’s intensity—though not its plot—comes during one of the rare sex scenes that actually works in the way so many sex scenes try to, leveraging erotic heat to throw underlying emotional tensions into relief. Dialogue from that scene is adeptly referenced in the film’s final scene, a gently moving reminder that all drifters—from the Golden Fang to itinerant hopped-up gumshoes—are, in the end, seeking safe harbor.

Jay Gabler