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
“The Big Lebowski” falls into the category of lesser Coen. It is a visual tour de force, but as a whole the movie slowly deflates into a cross between “Arizona” and “The Hudsucker Proxy.” — Barbara Shulgasser, San Francisco Examiner
Tonally askew, Inherent Vice is a sun-glared, neon-limned muddle of noir plotline and potheaded jokery that not only doesn’t make sense, but actually seems to try hard not to. — Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer
…a meandering adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s likely unadaptable novel that flies from one kooky character or situation to the next with no clear purpose or dramatic impact. […] Every once in a while, there’s a good moment, but in a film that runs two hours and 28 minutes, you need more than a few good moments. — Tom Long, Detroit News
Although it’s not as hermetic and impenetrable as The Master, Inherent Vice still comes off as a giant inside joke, evidence of Anderson’s undeniable talent and a further retreat into his own head. — Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald
I don’t include these quotes to bash the tone-deaf critics, because I didn’t wholeheartedly love either film upon first viewing. Inherent Vice is a faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s fractal plotting and pleased-with-itself-prose (in other words, too faithful an adaption, as many critics argued, including me). Lebowski is a deliberate shaggy dog story. They’re movies about wild goose chases, unfulfilling by design. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, no big lesson the protagonist is supposed to learn. Of course the endings are less than satisfying, how could they not be? And almost to the detriment of everything else, audiences remember an ending. As Charlie Kaufman’s fictionalized script guru Robert McKee tells Charlie in Adaptation, “I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.”
Neither Inherent Vice nor Big Lebowski wow you in the end. What Lebowski does have, that makes people want to throw Lebowski festivals and wear Lebowski costumes, is beautiful cinematography and an incredible density of information. It’s pretty enough that you can watch it float by even when it feels like it isn’t saying anything, but so subtly dense that you discover how much it is saying once you do.
It’s the rare movie that may actually benefit from being watched in 20 minute chunks on cable or left looping in the background at a party, rather than from start to finish as a unified whole. When you aren’t looking for a movie to wow you in the end, rushing to the finish line, you can better appreciate surreal moments and beautiful absurdities for the spontaneous pleasures they are. You can just let scenes be rather than mentally cataloguing them, like pieces for a future puzzle. Who is this muscular Chinaman? Is this going to be on the test? To fully appreciate The Big Lebowski, you have to live in the moment, which is a very Dude-like philosophy.
To be sure, Inherent Vice doesn’t exactly offer lighthearted life lessons like The Big Lebowski (at least, none that I’ve gleaned from my current view count). There’s a lot more to chew on (or be bored by); it clocks in at a whopping 149 minutes, to Lebowski‘s 117. To make matters worse, Joaquin Phoenix has a severe case of the mumbles. I love Joaquin’s mumbles (better mumble actor, Joaquin Phoenix or Tom Hardy?), but I’ll admit, mumbling does make a film substantially less quotable. But Vice‘s cinematography — by Robert Elswit, who doesn’t have quite as many Oscar nominations as Lebowski‘s Roger Deakins (two noms and one win for Elswit; an incredible 12 nominations with no wins for Deakins) — is every bit as visually beautiful, and twice as dense with meaning.
Like Lebowski, it isn’t always subtle, and some of its least subtle shots are the best parts.
Not many visuals beat the one of The Dude tracing Jackie Treehorn’s dick drawing (one of my favorite shots in all of cinema), but Doc Sportello watching Bigfoot Bjornsen deepthroat a chocolate-covered banana comes close.
Both Vice and Lebowski have this wonderful combination of highbrow sociopolitical commentary and Looney Tunes-level, genital-centric slapstick.
“I thought,” [Paul Thomas Anderson] explained, “What’s something I’ve seen that can get close to that amount of great visual information and all these things going on in the frame?”
“‘Police Squad!’ and ‘Top Secret!’ are what I clued into,” he said, referring to collaborations by the slapstick maestros David and Jerry Zucker. “We tried hard to imitate or rip off the Zucker brothers’ style of gags so the film can feel like the book feels: just packed with stuff. And fun.” [New York Times]
Of course, the major difference between Vice and Lebowski is one of tone. Where Lebowski is light and relaxing, Vice is dark and moody. But — and go with me here — there are sociological explanations for that. Explanations that tie the two movies even closer together.
Inherent Vice is set in 1970, The Big Lebowski in 1991 (a lot of people forget, Lebowski was a period piece even when it came out). They star actors who are 25 years apart in age, and while I’m not usually one for fan theories, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Doc Sportello as a younger version of Jeff Lebowski. It even explains the difference in tone. As The New York Times‘ Logan Hill accurately described Vice: “A benumbed melancholy throbs through both the novel and film, which plays like a lampoon lamentation for the Southern California utopia that might have been.”
If The Dude was “a man for his time and place,” totally comfortable in his milieu, Doc Sportello is that same man, just as he was just only beginning to come to grips with it. In Vice‘s first scene, setting up the human MacGuffin Mickey Wolfman, Sportello asks his ex-special lady Shasta Fay Hepworth, “Was this a gentleman of the… ‘straight-world’ persuasion?”
Clearly, Doc sees himself as distinct from that straight world. So does The Dude, but his rebellion has turned internal. It’s no longer about active intervention but peace of mind. By the ’90s, counterculture figures like The Dude, and the counterculture itself, were mostly a joke (“Do you remember the Seattle Seven? That was me… and six other guys”), Baby Boomers lecturing us on how to solve problems using examples of solutions that no longer apply.
In 1970 it was still deadly serious. In Doc Sportello’s world, secret societies — the Aryan brotherhood, the Black Panthers, biker gangs, the Black Gorilla Family, the Manson family, Jesus freaks (all referenced in the film) — were all battling the straight world — Nixon, the FBI, agents of the military-industrial complex like Josh Brolin’s Bigfoot Bjornsen — and sometimes each other, and not just metaphorically. ’60s optimism had turned militant, and a lot of people truly thought there would be a literal revolution. (Days of Rage, The Skies Belong To Us, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas — there’s no shortage of supplemental literature on the ’60s hangover that will make you appreciate Inherent Vice even more).
Hence why, for all its slapstick and silliness, Inherent Vice tends more towards moody and mysterious. Where Lebowski is calming, Vice is manic, sometimes infuriating. People actually get killed. It took 20 years to become a punchline. “The war is over, Lebowski! The bums lost!”
In Lebowski, the same counterculture zealot who started riots to oppose Vietnam is now bowling buddies with American jingoism’s dick-swinging id. (“It’s about drawing a line in the sand, man!”) Lebowski’s L.A. is essentially the Bethlehem Sportello’s slouched towards, a disappointing, co-opted, half-fulfilled dreamland that The Dude has nonetheless learned to navigate expertly — see: writing a two-dollar check at Ralph’s; shining on his landlord by promising to attend his weird play. Hell, The Dude probably lives in one of the same freeway suburbs Mickey Wolfman (played by the incomparable and perfectly cast Eric Roberts) bulldozed communities to build.
Just as appreciating Lebowski requires you to put yourself in a Dude-like state of Zen temporariness, appreciating Vice requires you to put yourself in Doc Sportello’s position, living in a time when almost everyone he meets is off on their “own weird trip,” which may or may not have anything to do with reality. You can either hold onto the ’50s like Bigfoot Bjornsen, ordering pancakes in broken Japanese, or try to create something new and risk ending up in a weird cult. Some of the things Doc experiences will have repercussions for decades to come, others will be buried as strange anachronisms. One of my favorite scenes is Doc’s meeting with Jena Malone’s Hope Hardigen, who has giant fake teeth (“heroin sucks the calcium from your body like a vampire”) and tells him a horrific story about her heroin-addicted baby before relating that she’s now a counselor trying to “teach responsible drug use.”
1970 was the year of the trial of Charles Manson, a guy who preached peace and love who moved out to the desert to drop acid and have group sex with runaways who came back and killed a famous actress in the hopes of starting a race war. In that context, Inherent Vice “trying hard not to make sense” makes perfect sense. What made sense in 1970? I like to imagine The Big Lebowski‘s gang of “nihilists” as a faint echo of the now-defunct secret societies of Doc’s day, which is why Walter hates them so much. The movies may not have been intended to be connected, but I like them better that way.
Look, trying to predict cult status is a fool’s errand. I can’t say whether Inherent Vice will ever find its audience the way Lebowski did, or if that’s even possible nowadays. It’s hard to imagine anything like my well-worn Lebowski DVD in a time when no one really buys DVDs. Or to imagine the kind of intense and long-running fandom that Lebowski enjoys ever happening to any movie, really. You can’t forecast an anomaly. But I think Vice is a movie worth digging into, that gets a little better and more interesting every time you watch it. If The Dude is a man for a time and a place, it’s worth pondering how he got that way, and the Doc Sportello story seems like a plausible explanation. Or at least, that’s just like, my opinion, man.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.