There are certain things that I’m embarrassed not to like, like Modest Mouse and miso soup and Andy Warhol and opera and stuff that is generally embraced by people with good taste. For years, the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski fell into that camp. I have friends who list it among their favorite movies of all time, but I never understood why. Then again, I had watched the movie by myself as a high-schooler on a college visit, and I had started the movie at 2:00 am. So this past weekend, when watching it with my housemates, I decided to give it a fair shake and view it with fresh eyes.
And now? I liked it a lot more, I laughed a fair amount, but I still had the distinct sense of Not Getting It, as though I was missing some crucial element that would tie the whole experience together. But I don’t think I actually am; I think The Big Lebowski, like Monty Python’s Holy Grail, is a largely self-referential movie that benefits from repeated viewings and incessant quoting. It’s one of the worst movies I can think of to watch by oneself – it’s best watched with a crowd of people who already know and love the dreamlike, surrealist universe.
As with many Coen brother movies, the story isn’t actually important, something that I didn’t understand during my first viewing. It’s an absurdly complicated riff on a kidnapping mystery, with the deadbeat protagonist the Dude (Jeff Bridges) getting bounced around between unstable, crooked characters like a pinball. In the end, the mystery fizzles out (Spoiler: The kidnapping victim was never kidnapped), meaning that all of the ado was, in fact, over nothing.
But perhaps the story isn’t really the point as much as the characters. John Goodman as Walter Kovaks, the Dude’s impulsive, belligerent best friend, is particularly wonderful. He approaches his thoroughly unlikeable character with a passion and commitment that is virtually never seen in comedies. When Walter pulls a gun on someone for failing to mark a bowling foul, we believe it as we never would if, say, Seth Rogen was playing the part. John Goodman isn’t the only ringer in the cast, either. Julianne Moore and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are onscreen relatively short lengths of time, but they also approach their ridiculous characters with a religious zeal.
However, (and this is where I start feeling as though I’m missing something) I still don’t find the Dude himself very funny or interesting. I get that he’s something of an anti-character, so far removed from the genetic code of other movie protagonists as to be another species, but as a completely passive figure, the Dude is only as interesting as the person he’s talking to. His scenes with Walter or Julianne Moore’s Maude really sparkle, but there’s an awful lot of humorless footage of the Dude being abused in various forms by less interesting characters: the other Lebowski, the pornographer, the cop, various thugs. Ok, I’ll grant that the scenes with the nihilists are also pretty funny.
I think the biggest thing that changed for me between viewings was an appreciation of the Coen brothers’ ambitions. It takes guts to make such an absurdist film, and I use absurdist in both the “weird” and Beckett-esque senses. It feels like both a love letter and a “screw you” to movie-making conventions, with the deadpan narration from a cowboy (!) only serving to underscore how ludicrous the whole thing is. However, while I appreciate the vision behind The Big Lebowski, there are still too many moments of dead time, too many jokes that fall flat, too few moments of genuine engagement with the characters (Walter’s eulogy for a fallen friend being a happy exception). So I’m not willing to add it to my “best of” lists just yet…but perhaps that will change upon a third viewing.