Trompler Foundation Archives

The Big Lebowski

The Coens really bummed me out, man.

Three months ago, a lot of Woody Allen fans were rudely awakened to a reality that I had taken for granted for so long that their reaction mystified me, until I realized that they had probably never left New York. These people take their art, like their wine and their politics, very seriously. They never realized, despite several aching symptoms, that Woody Allen is an asshole. A very funny, creative, and thoughtful asshole, yes. I took this as part-and-parcel of Allen's work, and indeed appreciated it more because of it. It took Deconstructing Harry to finally break through to Allen's core apologists exactly what he thinks of their fawning sycophancy, and by all accounts, it smarted.

Similiarly benighted, I eagerly anticipated the newest work from the Coen brothers, The Big Lebowski. With the Coens writing and directing Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, and John Turturro, what could be better? The plot, of course. For the first time, the Coens' script is overshadowed by their performers.

Bridges and Goodman turn in masterful performances, both staying faithful to their characters as written and displaying their native comedic range. Where the Coens fail their talent is in the wretchedly underwritten roles for Moore, Buscemi, and (most depressingly) Turturro. If these three could have been given the time to show their wares, I could probably forgive the embarrassingly weak storyline.

There are more well-written and genuinely funny and original scenes in The Big Lebowski than in 95% of the movies that will be released this year, but the plot arc is nowhere near as smart as I'd come to expect from the Coens. Dramatic humor, the narrative absurdity that brilliantly burned every scene of Raising Arizona, turned ice cool in Miller's Crossing, plumbed the darkest depths in Barton Fink, and was more subtly present in The Hudsucker Proxy and Fargo is only a dying ember in The Big Lebowski. To paraphrase John Goodman's Walter, "Say what you want about the dialogue in Titanic, at least it had an engaging plot." The device of having The Stranger (Sam Elliot) ennoble this mess as "a durned int'restin' story" is the final slap in the face to anyone who expects a smart screenplay from the Coens. Pass the bactine.

For two weeks I was one of the walking wounded. I take my irony as seriously as Allen fans take their art, and the Coens--my boys--neglected to put one in the brain. The reviews were no help. Most of the positive reviews hailed the entertaining buffoonery of Bridges, Goodman, and the marmot-siccing German nihilists, and cautioned against looking for deeper meaning. I guess someone better tell Pauly Shore he's out of a job. Other critics hailed the Coens' dexterity in rapidly shifting visual and narrative styles, as if we were desperately short of film school homages for Oscar Night montages. I had been aware that for some critics, this sort of retro-obscurity was the Coens' only remarkable characteristic, but I never imagined the Coens would ever want to encourage such typecasting of their work. For the most part, the only reviewers that criticized The Big Lebowski were those that thought it was a step down from the Coens' "best" (read: most accessible) film, Fargo. Fargo is the Coens' most derivative script, and the last thing they should be encouraged to do is to give up original screenplays and stick with adapting from other people's work.

I was about to resign myself to becoming a Coen grognard, scorning all their work after 1996, my fellow denizens of the "irony ghetto" focussed on a characteristic of The Big Lebowski to which I had previously given little attention: the role of pot. Of all the ways I could have possibly categorized The Big Lebowski, a "pot movie" would never have occurred to me, yet now I realize that that is how most of its fans regard it. Going back through the reviews, I was struck by how often the film's ostensible comedic appeal is couched in the premise, "Everybody knows someone like The Dude." This supposed universal experience with the stoned clown, particularly evocative of Southern California, forms not only the basis for laughing at The Dude's antics but also one's acceptance of the lack of direction, purpose, or meaning of the whole story. My problem is, I do my best not to know people like The Dude. I have very little patience with such haplessness, whether drug-induced or not, and dopeheads just acting dopey do not automatically qualify as funny with me. That Bridges retains a comic appeal through his stoner persona is therefore all the more a credit to him. Reading excerpts from interviews with the Coens, "Raymond Chandler meets Jeff Spicoli" seems to have been the long and the short of their inspiration. So, I congratulate myself for having known Woody Allen was an asshole, but I never would have guessed that the Coen brothers could be slackers.

Copyright © 1998 by Eric Scharf.  All rights reserved.

Update: Sat.17.Jan.99

Made myself a yummy White Russian and rented The Big Lebowski.  The funny scenes were still hilarious, Jeff Bridges and John Goodman were still brilliant, and the plot was still insultingly neglected.  The healing has begun.