When I heard that Paul Thomas Anderson would be translating a Thomas Pynchon novel for the the screen, I could not help but be excited. Here was one of today’s most ambitious and talented filmmakers interpreting an author of such dazzling obscurantism that his novels were generally considered by critics to be the acme of unfilmable. It was like the unstoppable force finally met the immovable object. Who would prevail?
The answer was probably not Anderson. The film adaptation of Inherent Vice only made back $14.7 million on its $20 million budget, though it earned a respectable 74% approval from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie was universally ignored by the award shows and seemed to leave many viewers puzzled by its labyrinthine, shaggy-dog storyline and unmistakable resemblance to The Big Lebowksi. Lovable stoner gets mixed up in crazy crime plot, full of wacky side characters and red herrings? We certainly felt like we had seen this film before.
Sure, The Big Lebowksi skated along on goofy, unabashed surrealism, while Inherent Vice cultivated something closer to the menace of film noir or a Seventies conspiracy movie. But there are plenty of parallels between the two narratives. Doc in Inherent Vice and the Dude in Big Lebowksi are both well-meaning hippies who end up investigating the criminal goings-on of the so-called “straight world.” The former gets drawn into an incredibly convoluted scheme after his ex-girlfriend becomes entangled in a plot against a shady LA real estate mogul; the latter is just trying to replace his rug (“it really tied the room together”) and subsequently becomes ensnared in a conspiracy when a wealthy philanthropist’s young trophy wife (“in the parlance of our times”) is kidnapped.
Both Doc and the Dude are social pariahs, even though they demonstrate far more empathy and character than their supposed social betters. It is, of course, the wealthy magnate Lebowski who is a lying, conniving thief, even though he looks down on the Dude as a lazy bum; similarly, Doc intersects with a series of gangsters, thugs, and corrupt businessmen who all share disdain for him as a “dirty hippie.” One rich Californio says he loses respect for a guy like Doc the minute he paid someone rent. In his defense, all our hero can do is sputter, “I may not be as wealthy or connected as you, and I’m definitely not as into revenge as you people are…” (This to a man who just had a coke-addled dentist murdered for sleeping with his daughter, at the same time that Doc is trying to help another erstwhile hippie reunite with his own lost wife and child.)
Meanwhile, the Bigfoot and Walter characters parallel each other, as the uneasy allies of the hippie protagonist. Each in his own way represents a certain square mentality at odds with the countercultural ethos of Doc and the Dude; both also exude insecurity beneath their facades of masculine swagger. Bigfoot is an arrogant LA cop whose eye sparkles “after a long day of civil rights violations,” who loves to push Doc around but remains captivated by him and ultimately wants to be his friend. Bigfoot aspires to be an actor and does some bit parts in TV procedurals filmed in LA, but he’s still filled with self-pity about his stunted ambitions for fame.
Similarly, Walter in The Big Lebowski is a Vietnam vet traumatized by the war and a recent divorce. He takes solace in Judaism—to which he converted after marrying his ex—and a free-floating belligerence that manifests as an obsession with rules and guns and incessant reminiscences about Vietnam. He may a far more marginalized figure in society than the big-time LA cop and small-time celebrity Bigfoot Bjornsen; but like him, Walter is simultaneously super macho, vulnerable, and hungry for affirmation. For some reason, Walter hangs out with the Dude, a guy who, as with Bigfoot and Doc, was probably on the other side of the big debates of the 1960s.
Notably, both films pursue seemingly intricate and cunning conspiracy plots that end up going nowhere, eventually returning back to where they started.
Of course, the story of Inherent Vice is actually set in the early 1970s, whereas The Big Lebowksi takes place in the early 1990s, when the culture wars set in motion by the 1960s had been going on for some time. That difference may make Lebowski look like a retrospective meditation on the era, while Vice is ostensibly a picture of it. In fact, Vice is more about the passing of the hippie era; Doc sees it slipping away, whereas the Dude simply plowed on and acted like it never ended.
The thing that unites both films is the human bonds at their core: the friendships between Bigfoot and Doc and Walter and the Dude symbolize a sort of ongoing dialectic about patriotism and the counterculture, an argument between competing visions of American culture that the social and cultural crises of the Vietnam era broke wide open. Saying Bigfoot and Doc were friends might seem like a stretch, of course. (Walter never beat the crap out of the Dude.) But there was certainly a yearning on Bigfoot’s part to take part in Doc’s exotic, if socially stigmatized hippie milieu. In their own vaguely buddy-cop way, the movies imply that the two sides could be reconciled—that the cop and the hippie, the veteran and the conscientious objector could somehow be pals.
At the same time, they both point to a moral rot within the establishment. In The Big Lebowski’s 1990, the counterculture appears to have been vanquished. As the rich Lebowski says when berating the Dude, “Your revolution is over… the bums lost!” Capitalists won, and the New Left languished in the dustbin of history. Inherent Vice explores how that conquest occurred, mapping out a web of shady connections between everyone from the FBI and Southeast Asian heroin smugglers to meditation cults and the activists of Nixon’s New Right. Behind the veneer of the Silent Majority, a malevolent coalition of ruthless power-seekers were remaking the California of Doc’s early 1970s, in ways that the hippies and the stoners were scarcely lucid, let alone informed enough to comprehend.
Doc’s odyssey brings him into contact with this subterranean conspiracy, but in the end the point is hardly the plot. The relationship between Vigilant California and Chryskylodon and Adrian Prussia in Inherent Vice is about as important as the connections between colorful characters such as Bunny, Jackie Treehorn, and the nihilists in The Big Lebowski. The plot itself is the ultimate MacGuffin—a mere pretext for exploring characters and ideas.
The central idea in both films is that the establishment feigns righteousness as it claims political victory, but it remains morally compromised to the core—or worse. The “Big Lebowksi” who lectures the Dude about the virtues of hard work and self-reliance is a fraud who never actually earned his fortune and attempts to perpetuate a huge scam. He hides behind his image as a successful, conservative businessman—a kind of Wizard of Oz. In the same way, the government agents and Republican politicians and smug bourgeoisie in Inherent Vice are far more cynical and vicious than Doc or his gaggle of hippie friends could ever dream of being.
Indeed, both Doc and the Dude come off as sincere and compassionate, albeit disorganized and naive. When Bigfoot breaks down Doc’s apartment door for no good reason toward the end of the film, he doesn’t really get angry; in fact, he’s more concerned about the tough-guy cop’s well-being when Bigfoot puffs on a joint and inexplicably wolfs down a whole tray of cigarette butts. Likewise, the Dude may be frustrated by his gun-nut friend’s violent antics—not to mention his endless Vietnam fixation—but he is still ultimately forgiving and supportive of Walter in the end.
Both narratives seem to suggest that the hippie counterculture faltered in the face of more powerful, sinister, and sophisticated foes—which, in some sense, is no doubt true. But “the Dude abides,” as the famous quote from the movie goes. And, in fact, the cultural ethos of the hippies ended up transforming capitalism since the 1960s in ways that the WASPy, upper-middle class squares of the time could never have anticipated, as Americans have become more relaxed in their attitudes toward fashion, sexuality, and other aspects of personal behavior. Indeed, it is the uptight prudes and sanctimonious elites in Inherent Vice, much like the bogus patriarch in The Big Lebowski, who today look like they have lost the culture war. The dirty hippies might have prevailed, at least in small but meaningful ways. Perhaps the Big Lebowski and Richard Nixon’s revolution is the one that is over in 2016—and they were the real bums after all.