Skip to main content

Yeah, well, you know, that's just like, uh, your opinion, man.

The Big Lebowski
(1998)

(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.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

Doctor, eh? You’re not in the best of shape yourself, though, are you?

Doctor Who  Season 26 – Worst to Best
I’m not a big Seventh Doctor fan. For me, Doctor Who pretty much ended with Season 23 (and not because it was awful: see here). Yes, there have been a few nu-Who reprieves (mostly notably Matt Smith’s first season), but the McCoy era flaunted an abundance of sins, from a lead who wasn’t up to snuff, to a script-editor messaging his social conscience wrapped in a breeze block (or bilge bag), to production values that made any given earlier era look absurdly lavish in comparison. And then there was the “masterplan” (which at least lends Season 24 a rather innocuous and relatively inoffensive quality by contrast).

Nevertheless, on the occasions I do return to the era, I’m always minded to give it a fair shake. And while that resolve inevitably crumbles within minutes, under the duress of cold harsh reality, it has, at times, led to a positive reappraisal (The Happiness Patrol, and, to an extent, perhaps unfathomably, Time and the Rani). So we’ll see ho…

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …