Joel and Ethan Coen are perhaps one of American cinema’s most versatile and surprising writing/directing duos. They’ve made a Western (TRUE GRIT), a screwball comedy (INTOLERABLE CRUELTY), a fable (A SERIOUS MAN), a Hollywood satire (BARTON FINK), two noirs (MILLER’S CROSSING, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE) and a mystery (FARGO) among others. Going through so many of Hollywood’s mainstay genres, the Coen Brothers have become symbols of cinema Americana.
Even with such an impressive filmography, the Coen Brothers’ THE BIG LEBOWSKI manages to eclipse them all as the crowning achievement of their careers because it can be seen as a combination of all those genres. For me, this seemingly simple comedy, with its running motifs of bowling and rugs, is a layered telling of Hollywood’s past, present and future.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI is, perhaps, one of the greatest modern screenplays, with its sprawling cast of diverse and interesting characters. It doesn’t hurt that the Coen Brothers amassed an impressive cast of actors including Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Elliot, John Turturro, Ben Gazzara and David Huddleston. Each character has his or her own voice, representing a different era in Hollywood’s lifetime. The Big Jeff Lebowski is a symbol of the old world, where men were men and did important things. Walter is stuck in the Vietnam War, his unchecked PTSD wreaking havoc on everyone he encounters. Maude Lebowski, with her “strongly vaginal” art, modern fashion sense, and eclectic friends, is the future. Jackie Treehorn represents Reagan-era excessiveness. Bumbling PI Da Fino is like a funhouse mirror version of a film noir detective. Bunny Lebowski is a SoCal beach bunny. Sam Elliot as The Stranger seems like he walked out of a John Ford Western.
Amidst all of these bizarre and memorable characters is The Dude, a typical 1990s slacker, redefining his masculinity to defy old world norms. He’s a malleable guy, taking on the opinions of others. It is surprising how much of what The Dude says comes from the mouths of others. His singular goal—to get his rug back—is what propels the story. He’s the lead in a stoner comedy that finds himself in a film noir about kidnapping, trophy wives, and Nihilists. And that’s what makes THE BIG LEBOWKSKI such a great comedy. It has an incredibly bizarre incongruity in its premise—the slacker turned incompetent detective—and then adds in a bunch of loons to get between the slacker and his beloved floor décor.
The Dude’s love for his rug and his penchant for the oversweet, decadent White Russian cocktail are both strong examples of the comic specificity which defines THE BIG LEBOWSKI. They are seemingly minor but actually telling details that clue you in on characterization. As The Dude encounters these figures of Hollywood lore, he remains consistently unchanged. Part of what makes The Dude such an appealing protagonist is that he, like Donny, is out of his element. He is an ordinary guy who finds himself in the middle of a mystery, has to solve it, and get out alive. This is a common theme in the films of Alfred Hitchcock; think James Stewart in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH or Robert Donat in THE 39 STEPS.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI can be read as a film noir dressed as a 1990s slacker comedy. It has the basic structure of 1940s film noirs and the various shady characters that populate them. The convoluted, meandering plot spoofs the hard-to-follow stories of films like THE BIG SLEEP or KISS ME DEADLY. The Coens even pays homage to the 1930s Busby Berkley musicals with the iconic Gutterballs dream sequence, with buxom synchronized dancers wearing elaborate costumes. Gutterballs blends together Viking imagery with bowling to create a truly bizarre musical number. In lesser hands, this part of the film might seem out of place or just too odd. But the scene is in tune with the rest of the delightful absurdities contained within THE BIG LEBOWSKI.
Now, I may discuss the “film noir structure” and “character specificity” to make myself seem smart. But the real reason I love this movie: it is just so gosh darn funny. My favorite part, the scene where I just lose it each time, is when Maude Lebowski and her video artist friend Knox Harrington (played by David Thewlis of all people) talk to someone on the phone in Spanish and laugh hysterically while the Dude just stares at them bewildered.
Scenes like that are so deliciously weird even if they don’t directly advance the plot. The Coen Brothers have made a film that is memorably absurd and addictively quotable. THE BIG LEBOWSKI is the kind of film that merits multiple screenings because there are so many good lines, strange plot points and cool details. Even amidst their other remarkable and magnificent films, THE BIG LEBOWSKI remains one of the Coen Brothers’ most intriguing and clever masterpieces.