‘Inherent Vice’ Is Both A Potential Cult Classic And The Spiritual Prequel To ‘The Big Lebowski’

Like a lot of people, I enjoy The Big Lebowski to an obnoxious degree. I’ve gone to Lebowski-themed parties, visited Lebowski-themed bars (Lebowski tourism!), and have been incorporating Lebowski-isms into my speech for so long that I barely know when I’m doing it anymore. Like I said, obnoxious. Lebowski is my Star Trek, that one Joss Whedon thing people love, and I’m protective of it. So when someone comes along trying to compare something else to The Big Lebowski, I understand the knee-jerk urge to tell him to f*ck off.

But hear me out here. I think Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 adaptation of Inherent Vice has Lebowski potential. By that I mean, the potential to rewatch, to delve, to obsess. The potential to dissect, sure, but mostly just the potential to enjoy on an ongoing basis. (Incidentally, it’s free on HBO Go right now)

What makes Inherent Vice Lebowski-eque, exactly? Obviously, there are the superficial similarities. Both movies involve a chilled out protagonist getting drawn into a hare-brained plot involving flamboyant pornographers, fascist cops, and a collection of mysterious, beautiful, and eccentric characters so obsessive they make the hero seem sane. Both are frequently, unfairly reduced to the descriptor “quirky.” Hell, both even have a narrator speaking from a strange remove who’s almost entirely extraneous to the plot.

In Lebowski‘s case, it’s Sam Elliott’s “The Stranger,” a philosophical cowboy The Dude runs into at a bowling alley. In Inherent Vice, it’s Sortilége, an earthy hippie chick played by Joanna Newsom who runs Doc Sportello’s local pizza joint and frequently annotates scenes via voiceover, from an astrological perspective. (Incidentally, both narrators were an attempt to riff on their literary sources — Vice a direct adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel, Lebowski a loose homage to Raymond Chandler.)

Their similarities run deeper than their plots, however. Plenty of people have pondered what it is about a particular film that makes it a cult classic, and there are different reasons for different movies. But with a lot of them, and especially The Big Lebowski, I think it’s the capacity to become habit-forming, to inspire obsession. It’s not exactly pleasant at first, but something about it makes you want to rewatch — like a scab you can’t stop picking, an initially inexplicable rap verse you keep rewinding. It compels you to re-experience it, and your feelings keep evolving as you do, like an album where your favorite song changes with every listen.

Cult movies tend to be more like a glass of whiskey than a cup of hot chocolate — the first sip doesn’t go down so easy. It’s too dense to parse, you’re looking for the wrong thing, it doesn’t come together as a whole — you’re left feeling slightly unfulfilled. It’s easier to remember that initial gag reflex with Inherent Vice, The Big Lebowski having mellowed over the subsequent years to become the sought-after product it is today. But if you go back to the initial reviews, the collective reaction to both films was strikingly similar. Both received mostly muted positives from critics, who sounded like they were being especially charitable to pedigreed filmmakers whose latest movie they didn’t love (74 percent on RottenTomatoes for Vice, 81 percent for Lebowski, the latter probably skewed somewhat by after-the-fact reviews). Both were mild disappointments at the box office. From non-critic audiences, The Big Lebowski received what we’d consider today a pretty negative Cinemascore (B). And if Twitter had been around in 1998, we might’ve been able to track mass walkouts like we did with Inherent Vice:

It’s not as easy as it looks to make a great walk-out movie, but Paul Thomas Anderson has cracked it. Inherent Vice is this season’s mustn’t-see experience. “Walked out of Inherent Vice. Understood so little of plot or dialogue, I worried I’d had a stroke” tweeted Philip Hensher.

“Only the third film I’ve ever walked out from” Hardeep Singh Kohli didn’t rave. Even our own Owen Jones “Lost the will to live” and left half-way through. The internet is buzzing with similar reports: “Saw Inherent Vice and at least a quarter of the audience walked out”, “I couldn’t sit through more than an hour of Inherent Vice”. “50% walk out rate is highest I’ve seen in a while.” [The Guardian]

Moreover, the negative reviews of both feel remarkably similar. The two most common knocks on both being that they were “less than the sum of its parts” and “too clever for its own good.”

…although some of its parts are brilliantly executed and played by a terrific cast, the result is scattered, overamplified and unsatisfying. […] “The Big Lebowski” is ultimately too clever for its own good. There are more ideas here, more wacko side characters and plot curlicues than the film can support, and inevitably it deflates from having to shoulder so much.  — Edward Guthmann, San Francisco Chronicle

…adds up to considerably less than the sum of its often scintillating parts, simply because [The Big Lebowski] doesn’t seem to be about anything other than its own cleverness. — Todd McCarthy, Variety