Screen Themes: Inherent Vice vs The Big Lebowski

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It’s a hippie face-off as The Dude meets Doc; entertainment editor, John Turnbull, checks out the new PTA film Inherent Vice and the Coen Brothers classic The Big Lebowski.

THERE HAVE been some iconic portrayals of hippies in film, from Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider to Ralph Brown as Danny in Withnail and I (inventor of the Camberwell Carrot), but for many, you can’t go past The Dude, played by a never-better Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. Perhaps, however, The Dude finally has a challenger to his title of king of the hippies in the laconic Doc, played by Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice.

Inherent Vice (2015) – directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Inherent Vice is the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of The Master and There Will Be Blood. The Thomas is important because it distinguishes him from Paul W.S. Anderson, director of three increasingly awful Resident Evil movies as well as the sporadically entertaining Event Horizon.

Based on the novel by reclusive writer Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice is a noir-influenced mystery filled with offbeat characters and slightly confusing conversations. Set in the 1970s, the film revels in period detail, taking particular joy in the disdain that most ‘straight’ people held for the hippie community.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a private investigator with a magnificent set of mutton chops.  Doc is drawn into a web of mystery when ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth reappears in his life, trying to get him involved with a con job. The hypnotically beautiful Shasta is played by Katherine Waterston, daughter of Law & Order stalwart Sam Waterston. This is an actress to watch, and if willingness to do nudity is a marker for career potential (hello, Margot Robbie) then Waterston should go far.


The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. Josh Brolin continues his run of meaty roles as obsessive detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornson, a fame obsessed straight-edger inextricably drawn to Doc’s shambolic lifestyle. Martin Short plays Dr Rudy Blatnoid, a manic dentist with a penchant for cocaine, and Reese Witherspoon is superb as Doc’s straight-laced girlfriend, Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball. Benicio Del Toro plays Doc’s marine lawyer, and Owen Wilson plays Coy Harlingen, a famous saxophonist who was thought to be dead but was actually working for the CIA. Possibly.

The best advice I could give to viewers of Inherent Vice is to just go with it. Large segments of the movie don’t make a lot of sense, characters with odd names are introduced and disappear almost immediately, and the mystery that Doc is investigating shifts and changes like a mirage. Once you realise that Doc is hallucinating for much of the movie (typified when he sees a squadron of soldiers advancing across a barren desert) the tale makes a little more sense, but this is one of those movies that is more about the journey than the destination.

Rating 7/10 – it’s a trip, man.

The Big Lebowski (1998) – directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

Directed by the Coen Brothers, The Big Lebowski is a movie about mistaken identity, kidnapping and bowling. Having built a career off the back of films including murder mystery Blood Simple, gangster drama Miller’s Crossing, screwball comedy The Hudsucker Proxy and snowbound thriller Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen were becoming known as auteur filmmakers who never made the same movie twice.

Jeff Bridges plays Jeffrey ‘The Dude’ Lebowski, a permanently chilled stoner who wears a bathrobe during the day and pays for milk with a cheque. After being mistaken for disabled millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski and having his favourite rug soiled, The Dude is hired to track down Lebowski’s missing trophy wife Bunny, who may or may not have been kidnapped by nihilists.

The Dude is accompanied on his quest by his bowling buddies Walter, an angry yet articulate Vietnam veteran played by John Goodman, and Donny, a simple man with a gentle heart played by Steve Buscemi. Along his journey The Dude encounters free spirited artist Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), obsequious manservant Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and evil bowler Jesus Quintana, played with relish by John Turturro.

The real joy in The Big Lebowski comes not from the meandering plot but from the performances of Moore, Goodman and Buscemi, taking potentially one-note characters and adding layers of depth and emotion to their performances. Taking this into account, this is Jeff Bridges movie, and The Dude seems likely to be the character that people will remember him for when he finally shuffles off this mortal coil.

Rating: 9/10 - The Dude abides.

The Verdict

There are a number of similarities between Inherent Vice and The Big Lebowski;

  • hirsute, weed-toking protagonist
  • hallucination/concussion induced dream sequence
  • about kidnappings that are more than what they seem
  • feature a cast of talented supporting actors playing oddballs

This is not to say that Inherent Vice is derivative, more that if you’re a fan of The Big Lebowski then Vice will probably appeal to your sense of humour. Of the two films, Lebowski is probably slightly more satisfying, only because most of the film makes sense when you think about it afterwards.

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