No. 2: The Big Lebowski
Pretty much no one likes The Big Lebowski the first time they see it. Not in my experience, anyway. Your friends may all be savants when it comes to sussing out under-appreciated greatness, but my band of nerds are no slouches and we all reacted to it—separately and at different times—in the same way.
“Uh…what was that?”
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m a bit of a film nerd. And what’s worse, I consider myself a film nerd without the title being bestowed on me by some envious cadre of admirers. The truth is, I pride myself on it. I prominently display my 100+ Criterion movie collection, secretly hoping that no one asks about one of the more-than-there-should-be movies I still haven’t gotten around to actually watching. On that note, I buy obscure movies purely on spec sometimes. And, I eventually watch them.
I’m persnickety, admittedly. I have to be in the right mood for a certain movie. So, maybe it was just a bad day when I went with some friends to see The Big Lebowski at the theater in 1998. I’d seen a preview and was entranced by the surrealistic visuals of Lebowski’s trip/dream sequences.
But, I wasn’t ready. And, it would take probably longer than it should have before I gave it another chance and it changed my world.
The plot, somewhat briefly.
It’s complex. Intentionally complex. That’s because it’s specifically meant to be an homage of sorts to the famous noir writer Raymond Chandler. His plots were complex. Most known for The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, Chandler was the quintessential noir writer. Convoluted plotting that often involved normal people trying to solve a great mystery. It was generally intense stuff and I highly recommend the 1946 Howard Hawks directed, William Faulkner(!), and Leigh Brackett written film version of The Big Sleep starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart as the constant Chandler private eye protagonist, Philip Marlowe.
I also recommend the 1973 Robert Altman film version of The Long Goodbye starring Elliot Gould as Marlowe. In fact, I wrote a whole academic paper once connecting these three movies as a representation of the deconstruction of the noir genre. Because, Altman and Gould also play Chandler for comedy, though differently than the Coen brothers. They place it in modern times (1970s), but leave Marlowe as this anachronistic throwback to the 1940s. By doing this, they show how much the world has changed and that noir wasn’t so much of a genre as maybe an era. Really excellent. I love this movie.
The Coen brothers, writers and directors of Lebowski, and other classic comedies such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men, can’t just make an honest adaptation. I mean, look at their remake of True Grit. Zing!
But for real, the Coens just ooze complexity. It’d be really annoying and pretentious if they weren’t so damn good at it. And, effortless. They use words we all missed on the SAT like they’re no big deal. Like, “Oh that thing. I didn’t even realize I wrote it.” Shut up, Joel. You know damn well what you’re doing!
So, Lebowski isn’t just a love letter to Chandler (like O Brother is a love letter to Preston Sturges). It’s a complex deconstruction of the noir genre through the eyes of a stoner slacker Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) and his best friend, larval tea party member Walter Sobchak (John Goodman).
The Dude drifts kind of aimlessly through life, but it’s OK because everyone generally likes him. That is until he comes home one day to find some tough guys waiting for him, asking where the money is.
Turns out, we have a small matter of a mistaken identity. These ruffians are actually looking for a different Jeff Lebowski, an old, cantankerous, wheelchair bound one-percenter, whose very young Anna Nicole knockoff of a wife has gone missing. Presumed kidnapped.
Aw, serendipity. The older Lebowski hires the younger Lebowski to make the ransom drop. And, as you can imagine, things just kind of unravel from there.
Along the way, we’re treated to the infamous trip/dream sequences of the Dude, bowling, the Jesus, strange storytelling type interludes by Sam Elliot, a toe, performance art, and Tara Reid before Hollywood realized she wasn’t actually a good actor.
There are plots on top of plots within plots. Some get dropped, some have satisfying conclusions, and some are just kind of left unresolved.
So, this is where I tell you that a movie that, as I’ve laid out, breaks a lot of rules…
- It tries to be heady and poignant while still being a comedy
- It’s a spoof of a pre-existing genre
- It’s intentionally complicated
- It only barely follows any sort of traditional plot structure
…is still one of the best movies ever made. And, here’s why.
We’ve talked about embracing the bit, getting to something serious through silliness, and casting yourself as the dope in service of covering a serious subject.
Now, we’re to the just-damn-good-writing part of our lessons. The Coens, Ethan especially, are incredibly smart guys. I wasn’t kidding earlier. They really are just wicked smart. That said, here’s what I think makes Lebowski work.
Deceptively good writing.
Look, most of us know that the Coens are kind of the gods of great film right now. They’ve made more great films than anyone in their generation. But, what’s interesting about their comedies is that they don’t seem like expertly crafted, perfectly executed stories. But, they are.
If you ever have occasion to read a Coen script, I wasn’t kidding about the big words. The script is exacting and detail heavy. They are hyper-precise. And that’s the key.
This blog is for a comedy club that specializes in improv, so pre-loading is something you try to avoid, right? Well, in improv, yes. But, how many times have you come off from a sketch and thought, “Dammit, I should’ve had the bird fly into my face. That would’ve been way funnier!”
Great comedy can be achieved in improv. Just look at TJ & Dave. But, the Marx Brothers never just winged it. Especially not in their movies.
By the time the Marx Brothers shot a movie, they’d rehearsed every bit a thousand times in front of an audience. They road tested everything on stage before putting it in the movies. That’s why they made some of the greatest comedies of all time (Duck Soup would be No. 6 on my list).
Same goes for the Coens. The Big Lebowski, at times, looks silly. There are silly bits. Goodman yelling, “Over the line!,” John Turturro (as Jesus) licking the ball and then doing his little dance, Steve Buscemi always being just outside of the periphery of conversations. There are a million bits and a million quotable lines. “We are nihilists! We believe in nothing!” (said in German accent, of course).
And, at times, there is some very real intrigue and danger. There are tense moments, like in a real noir movie.
And, there are times when the whole thing feels disjointed and surreal. Like a semi-coherent David Lynch movie.
But, that’s only if you think the movie is about solving a mystery.
Hint: It’s not.
The events of the plot matter only in so much as they aid the Dude along on a spiritual journey, of sorts. It’s OK if the plot doesn’t always make sense, some of the characters are ridiculous, and there are just some random bonkers dream sequences. This is a film about the Dude, told from his perspective. And, that’s about how much sense it might make to him.
And if you need any more proof, just watch that last scene again. Everything is calm, generally back to normal, but not. Things aren’t ridiculous anymore, but the Dude is different. He’s changed.
That’s it right there. It’s about the Dude. If you make him your baseline, suddenly it all makes sense. But, the whole time, the movie is pulling you in so many different directions that you’re just trying to keep up.
Exactly, Dude. Or, Duderino. If you’re not into the whole brevity thing. Just crank up the CCR, make a caucasian, and sit back and enjoy it like you’re flying through the air naked splatter painting on a wall-sized canvas.
Just no Eagles.
Next week, No. 1. The darkest comedy of them all.
Kris Noteboom is a Level 3 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus on comedy. He went on a mini tour this summer performing his comedic one-man show, And Then I Woke Up.