When I told my friend Pat that I had never seen The Big Lebowski, he threatened to hurt me. The immediate spoken threat was of physical violence, but darker undertones in his voice hinted at more insidious psychological and emotional tortures. From the look in his eyes, I inferred that these tortures would only increase in severity the longer my error went uncorrected. What could I do but watch it that very night?
But so what, if I'd never seen the movie? I haven't seen lots of movies. You give me any list of great movies, compiled by whoever you please, and odds are I'll have failed to see about half of them. I don't see quite as many movies as some people do! I think it's a little weird that people get so uptight about these must-see movies. Of course I'm being a massive hypocrite right now; I've browbeaten plenty of people who haven't seen critical entries in my own personal canon. I respect the movies tremendously as an art form, but by and large I put less emphasis on it than other fields.
Of course, having watched The Big Lebowski, I have now joined the legion of fans who believe that every right thinking American should also watch it. Regularly. Preferably with a White Russian in hand, and I don't even care for mixed drinks. It just seems like the right thing to do.
Be warned, everyone: I will browbeat you into seeing this movie, if you haven't already. If you have, I accept your scorn for being so late to the party. But I will make amends, by bothering all of the other people.
It should go without saying that the movie actually merits watching, beyond the imperatives issued by cultists like myself. It's very, very funny, in a way that really puts most genre comedies to shame. It's beautifully shot, has great music throughout, and resides comfortably in a plane of delicious strangeness, where preposterous events generate knowing smiles rather than sighs of disbelief.
Really, why didn't I just put aside an afternoon and see it years ago? It's not like I was busy.
Being a big fan of Philip Marlowe movies (particularly The Long Goodbye), it didn't take me long to gather just what exactly the Coens were up to. Just like Marlowe, Jeff Lebowski (AKA The Dude, the only name he really needs) sort of stumbles in an intoxicated haze from one clue to the next before solving the mystery before him in a flash of insight. Events just keep pushing him through the plot long after he's decided it would have been better if he'd never gotten involved. Then, once all is said and done and the story is resolved, things are more or less exactly as they would be if he hadn't. Apart from the violence and massive property damage, of course, but it's hard to fault The Dude for taking it all in stride. Not when the alternative would be even weirder.
As funny as Jeff Bridges is as The Dude, he's actually more of the straight man in his own movie. The real comic force is his friend Walter, played by John Goodman as the angriest angry white man in the history of comedy. A movie about Walter would probably be pretty terrible, consisting of scene after scene of self-righteousness, misplaced confidence and indiscriminate violence. Set up against The Dude's prevailing nonchalance, Walter manages to fuck things up just enough to keep the movie rolling through Shabbos without making him terribly unlikable.
I could go on and praise more or less the whole cast, particularly Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore. They are two of the brightest spots in a planetarium of loonies who pass in and out of The Dude's orbit. The way Hoffman's character interacts with The Dude, particularly after their initial meeting, is a multifaceted running joke that just keeps on giving. Moore's portrayal of an artistic feminist as a willful force of nature is almost a painful cliche, but the lengths to which she carries it are simply amazing. It is but one example of how Lebowski takes risks that more than pay off for the audience.
There's actually a few things in this movie that, were I not so captivated by its brilliance, I'd probably call flaws. Several characters show up once for funny scenes and effectively disappear, and others seem underutilized. Sometimes it seems like someone in The Dude's half-baked state of mind had a hand in organizing the screenplay. There's some pathos near the end that isn't quite as meaningful or earned as it should be, and hints about a "Little Lebowski" don't really do much to bring one of the film's odder subplots to a conclusion. There's a scene with a Malibu police officer that really highlights the absurdity of this world's relationship with the law that doesn't go nearly as far as it should in a Marlowe spoof.
But mostly, the movie is brilliant, satirizing itself as often as it satirizes the detective genre. Despite spending most of its time dressed as the world's sunniest film noir, it's narrated by Sam Elliott in an over-the-top cowboy idiom that rambles into the story whenever it damn well pleases, rhyme or reason be darned. When Lebowski mixes genres this way, it's pretty clear that a certain amount of fuzzy disorganization is a feature, and whether you like the movie or not will largely depend on whether you think that's a good thing.
Of course, you should think that. It's a great thing. A lot of comedies try to get by on being wacky, but the really great ones fly by a much more interesting plan: insanity. There's a sense of humor that's infused in the whole production, from intense musical cues to lunatic visual effects. Why settle for less? Go watch The Big Lebowski and repent. Then maybe go bowling? That's fun too.