The Big Lebowski
(SPOILERS) I dothink it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. There are movies I’ve watched so many times – Withnail & I springs to mind – that I can’t envisage enjoying it as “purely” as I once did again, and certainly doubt that I’ll revisit again any time soon. Indeed, these days, I’ll rarely watch a new movie more than a couple of times in short order so as to preserve that quality as much as possible (sometimes that’s hard; Fury Road is five and counting). The Big Lebowski is one I’ve seen on numerous occasions over the years, but it’s probably been half a decade since the last time, for exactly the same reason of not wanting to diminish it.
I needn’t have worried. There’s a quality with some films whereby you can watch them in different ways or different moods and get different things from them. The aforementioned Withnail can be taken as uproariously funny on some occasions and in certain company, or a particularly bleak story about friendship, loss and ephemerality on another. The Big Lebowski isn’t like that. It doesn’t change, isn’t receptive to a different take. And that’s not a bad thing. It rather underpins its appeal; it, like the Dude, it abides. It’s a known quantity, always welcoming, cosy in a way, with just enough sadness and viscera to add spice to the mix but avoid being a turn off.
I don’t think that’s justtrue of Lebowski in the Coens’ oeuvre, though; their films aren’t especially prone to revealing layers. They aren’t onions, poised to reveal new secrets, and they aren’t thematically rich in the sense that they don’t respond well to probing critical analysis. While the brothers are famously resistant to discussing their own work in depth, there’s good reason for that. It is what it is. The richness is in the art of the storytelling, by and large, not what “they are saying with this piece”. It’s why Clooney’s decision to insert a racism commentary into their Suburbicon screenplay was dunderheaded; it’s exactly at odds with the way they approach material. You’ll never hear them announcing what they wanted to say with a piece, and I don’t think they remotely think about their subjects that way (even something ostensibly closer to home like A Serious Man veers off in tangents, as if they’re consciously mocking anyone who’d suggest as much). Lebowski touches on a whole raft of social and political texts and subtexts, but they aren’t what it’s about. It doesn’t stop to examine them, rent them shoes, buy them a fucking beer, but rather glances at them in passing and moves on.
The first Gulf War period setting isn’t really significant in any way other than it’s cute, and facilitates certain character cues (notably those of Walter), and while it might be possible to suggest there’s a commentary on (strongly vaginal) art versus (smut business) porn (when it comes down to it, both rather impartially lead to the Dude getting beaten up), one ends up feeling that Maud’s tone is an appropriate riposte (“Don’t be facile, Jeffrey”). One can analyse the Dude himself, as a “counter narrative to the post-Reaganomic entrepreneurial rush for ‘return on investment’ on display in such films as Jerry Maguire and Forrest Gump” – as Joseph Natoli did in The Rug Really Tied the Room Together – but the character wears itself on its own chin, is constantly commented upon as such (“The bums lost!”) and so resists any impulse to peer below the surface because what he is is all on the surface.
None of which is to say the brothers’ movies shouldn’t be analysed, only that I think the pickings are inevitably slim. David Perkins suggested that “Their stories are packed with meaning, but there’s never one definitive message”, going on to note of A Serious Man that it “seems to simultaneously deny and affirm the existence of the divine”; it’s almost as if they’re expressly styming those who would imbue their work with meaning, such that, to invoke Maud again, Perkins’ points of common features are facile to the point where one might apply them to any given filmmaker’s work and come away nodding (“life is cruel and punishing, but if you can be content with what you have, it doesn’t have to be”).
Having said that, the picture does promote, by indifferent default, a kind of stoicism towards life, as Bridges notes regarding The Dude and the Zen Master, the book he wrote with Bernie Glassman, who considers the Dude a zen master; the answer to life’s myriad problems is the meditative state of bowling, where all people are equal (well, maybe not the Jesus) and entering an altered state (the Dude, after all, blisses out listening to a tape of pin hits). The antithesis of the belief in bowling is therefore nihilism. All of this is, of course, a joke (it’s interesting to note how, while the Dude is ostensibly the progressive man of peace, his attitudes and parlance are lost in a haze of less thoughtful language of generations past, which is why he has to be corrected on his “Chinaman” by the professionally intolerant Walter, and blithely uses the term handicapped in reference to Huddleston’s Big Lebowski). There’s a reading to be had that Sam Elliott’s Stranger is God, and the kind of broken-down control he has of his creation is why he appreciates the Dude ambling through it with similar slack fortitude (“Takin' her easy, for all us sinners”).
If I don’t really buy into assertions of thematic depth, then, in as much as texts replete with the degree of self-awareness theirs do rather make mining for it redundant, the Coens elicit awe with the films for entirely different reasons. They’re simply without equal as storytellers, ones with an innate facility for the requirements of whatever the chosen genre may be (to the extent of crossing the boundaries thereof, or mashing them up). It’s impossible not be ever more impressed by their writing their screenplays to within an inch of their life. At their best – and they have a remarkably high hit ratio, so it’s entirely appropriate to generalise – everything counts. Every beat is perfection. At no point does The Big Lebowski take the foot off the gas and offer a scene where one might disengage. It’s uncommon in that sense, and it at least partly explains its appeal.
I mean, obviously, its appeal is essentially that it’s very funny, has rich characters (or caricatures) you want to spend time with, and has, as I suggested above, a cosiness that invites return engagements. But if you could synthesise that, every movie would be a cult hit. It’s a stoner comedy made by guys who don’t get stoned, a detective yarn that’s so soft on the detecting the first assumption (she kidnapped herself) isn’t so very far from the truth, possessed of a shaggy dog sprawl in aspect that belies how intricate it is in a Raymond Chandler sense. This time, I was halfway through the movie thinking I must have exhausted all the good scenes, but that’s an embarrassment of riches for you.
The legend of the cult of Lebowski has it that it wasn’t especially well received when it opened, and its reputation, or legacy, gradually grew over the next half decade. Which sounds about right. I went to see it on opening day and adored it, but my anecdotal experience of friends was that they often didn’t, particularly those who thought Fargo was simply the best (contrastingly, while I like that one – I don’t dislike anything they’ve done – I’ve always been relatively cool on it). As Steve Buscemi suggests in a recent interview with Bridges and Goodman, many – including critics – didn’t quite know how to take the picture, but “once you know what it is, then you really enjoy every moment of it”. For me, 1998 was a year marked by a trio of great offbeat mainstream movies, with this leading the charge (the others being Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Warren Beatty’s Bulworth).
I don’t intend to sally headlong into liberally quoting lines – I’d be here forever – as that would be as redundant as celebrating The Life of Brian in similar fashion, but I will note the genius of the cast, in particular the perfection of Bridges and Goodman’s odd couple, culminating in the Dude’s rant at Walter for messing up the sprinkling of Donnie’s ashes, Walter revealed as just a lost little boy (“Dude, I’m sorry”). Buscemi is thrown very much a straight man role, one that at first glance gets lost in the shadows of his showier peers, but is allowed to take on form through that all-important repeat viewing (it’s about time he worked with the brothers again; it’s thirteen years).
Julianne Moore has never been funnier, the clenched precision of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Brandt is always a joy to behold, David Huddleston’s other Lebowski is peerlessly pompous, whiskery Sam Elliott is plain iconic, Turturro the ultimate scene stealer (I have a feeling his revisiting the character was a bad idea) and Peter Stormare a master at fixing the cable. Also deserving mention are Jack Kehler for Marty’s astonishingly rendered performance art (the difference between his and Maud’s, quality-wise?), Ben Gazzara as a very affable Jackie Treehorn (treating objects like women), Aimee Mann sporting a missing toe and Jon Polito’s Irish monk. There’s also David Thewlis with an extraordinary laugh as Knox Harrington (written as filler for an exposition scene, but great filler). Thewlis was one who, a few years later, but prior to the picture’s cachet taking hold, opined that, unfortunately, he’d appeared in one of the brothers’ not-so-good efforts. I wonder if he’d say the same now.
It’s impossible to pick out a best scene in the picture, but if there is one, it would definitely feature John Goodman; Bridges may have the cool character, but Goodman’s the engine who powers the film, usually through acting the bull in a china shop. The general perception is that the Coen brothers’ comedies are less valuable than their straight pictures; I’d certainly agree they’re more variable (of the rest, only Raising Arizona and O Brother Where Art Thou are resolutely top tier), but The Big Lebowski is a thing of such perfection that it disproves such talk. One only has to look at Inherent Vice, a movie I enjoyed and that might on the surface appear to have a similar stoner cachet but is never going to blossom with the same kind of cult appeal. Mainly because it’s entirely resistant to endearing the viewer. It isn’t a warm, likeable, quotable, hazily revisitable. It doesn’t abide.