Few things are more annoying than people who watch a classic film for the first time, years after it arrived in the world, and then write a smug thinkpiece announcing that, actually, it’s really bad. So believe me that when I say that The Big Lebowski isn’t good that I’ve given the matter plenty of thought — it’s the opinion I had when I saw the movie opening night back in 1998, and it’s how I felt when I revisited it twice in the last two years. I have tried and tried to understand why a movie that (correctly) received mixed reviews at the time has been subsequently embraced as a comedic masterpiece. Either I’m wrong or the entire world is. I don’t like those odds.
This is not to say that The Big Lebowski is terrible. For one thing, it’s the work of Joel and Ethan Coen, two of the best filmmakers of the last 40 years. They have plenty of great movies to their credit: Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coen brothers have so many great films, in fact, that it’s almost insulting that it’s very possible that The Big Lebowski is their most beloved and widely seen. It’s like saying you adore Bob Dylan and then declaring “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” his best song. Jesus, man, that’s your favorite? Are you even a fan at all?
Now, I haven’t taken leave of my senses completely — I can list off several things in The Big Lebowski that I think are terrific. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unctuous Brandt. John Turturro’s pedophiliac bowler Jesus. Or this incredible scene where Jeff Bridges’ the Dude thinks he’s discovered a clue in the home of nefarious porn producer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara)
But some funny moments — and a legendary performance from Bridges — do not a classic make. If anything, The Big Lebowski is the definitive bits-and-pieces comedy — really enjoyable to watch in 10 minutes chunks on cable, but not sharp or smart enough to completely work as a beginning-to-end viewing. This L.A. crime caper — in which the Dude has to help a rich jerk (David Huddleston) retrieve his kidnapped trophy wife (Tara Reid), leading to a string of misadventures — is one of the Coens’ slackest narratives, a hangout comedy where much of the fun (in theory) stems from our lackadaisical antihero shooting the shit with his hair-trigger Vietnam vet buddy Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and their pushover pal Donny (Steve Buscemi).
But here’s the thing: I don’t like hanging out with these guys. The Dude’s an honorable man — an aging hippie with the good sense to know that the Eagles suck — but Walter is a truly noxious character. Not funny-noxious but noxious-noxious — a loud, belligerent asshole who sees everything as an affront or a provocative stance against him. The problem is, I think I’m supposed to think he’s hilarious. Goodman’s been great with the Coens from Raising Arizona to Inside Llewyn Davis, but a little of Walter goes a long way — especially because he’s been conceived as a burned-out-vet caricature. Even worse, Walter mostly just causes needless plot complications, ruining the Dude’s plans at every turn with his erratic bad decisions.
A friend recently suggested that Walter might be the unwittingly prescient precursor to every MRA/MAGA lunatic you meet online now. Maybe so, but just like in real life, the character’s a bore.
When the Coens aren’t hitting on all cylinders — like in The Hudsucker Proxy or O Brother, Where Art Thou? — they tend toward yuk-yuk types in the supporting cast. The Big Lebowski is full of ‘em, including a one-note Julianne Moore as Maude, a pretentious artist (this means she talks funny and is into weird shit), and David Thewlis as Knox, a pretentious artist (this means he talks funny and is into weird shit). There are some German nihilists — they talk funny, too — as well as digressions involving a Busby Berkeley-esque dream sequence, a side trip to a former TV showrunner who’s now living in an iron lung, and a lot of bowling minutiae.
The Big Lebowski is quirk upon quirk, a goofy Raymond Chandler-style L.A. mystery folded into a Western and a heist-gone-wrong thriller. Plus, it takes place during the buildup to the Gulf War — so if you’d like to read the movie as a political critique of GOP warmongering and the Dude’s crushed counterculture idealism, feel free. The Big Lebowski can be anything you want: either a silly lark or a super-deep collection of themes and ideas. In other words, it’s the perfect stoner film.
And perhaps that’s ultimately why I’ve never been able to get on its wavelength. Stoner comedies are a great scam: They indulge in their laidback, hey-man-just-relax vibe, never straining to put forth much effort — and if you object to their giggly humor and draggy pace, well, then you’re just uptight. The Big Lebowski radiates a stoner worldview throughout, whether it’s the Dude’s go-with-the-flow attitude or the script’s throwaways gags. (There’s a whole bit about the Dude’s landlord’s woeful performance-art piece. Seriously, what’s this movie’s deal with highbrow art?) The Big Lebowski’s shrugging randomness — matched by the warm, rambling philosophical musings of the Stranger, Sam Elliott’s cowboy narrator — is the cinematic equivalent of a room thick with pot smoke. Sure, it puts you in a mellow mood, but it dissipates soon enough.
Fans of The Big Lebowski will object to all this, of course. Hell, there’s a whole religion devoted to the Dude’s Zen mindset and an annual Lebowski Fest that’s “a celebration of all things Lebowski.” Clearly, they see something in this movie that I don’t, and who am I to begrudge them their enjoyment?
But, still, c’mon … this movie? This is the Coen brothers film that’s inspired such passionate fandom? I’ve gone back a few times to The Big Lebowski to see if I can make peace with my meh reaction. Last year, I even checked it out on the big screen for the first time in two decades, surrounded by Lebowski fans, in the hopes that full immersion into the Dude experience would help. Alas, I guess I’m just a Brandt — or, more likely, a Donny, doomed to always be out of step with what everybody else is talking about.
Oh well, I can abide. In his excellent Coen brothers overview, This Book Really Ties the Films Together, my friend and colleague Adam Nayman calls The Big Lebowski the filmmakers’ sweetest movie — and perhaps their most deceptive. “Of all the Coens’ movies,” he writes, “The Big Lebowski is, at least on the surface, the most ambling and aimless. … But the film around [the Dude] has depths to plumb, and then some: There is no bottom.”
For 22 years now, this movie’s sizable fan base has giddily taken that plunge, deciphering and decoding every aspect of this blissed-out cult favorite. I’m happy for the joy it brings them. I wish I could join in. But I don’t know what they’re smoking.