The Big Lebowski
***1/2 – very good
I have always gotten a sense (to one degree or another) that the Coen brothers enjoy gleefully mocking their characters and the setting that surrounds them. The non-insulting nature of it prevents it from becoming a form of cinematic arrogance, but it’s important to note, regardless. The mocking is most evident in the feature that came directly before The Big Lebowski, their Academy Award-winning and critically acclaimed Fargo.
I don’t necessarily get that sense here. That’s not to say that the supporting cast gets off easy – everyone from John Goodman’s Vietnam-obsessed Walter to a gang of Nihilist German porn stars take a few shots below the belt. It’s more in the romanticized portrait of the film’s lead, referred to mostly as The Dude, and to a lessor extent the film’s cowboy narrator (played by Sam Elliot), where the Coen’s seeming “aboveness” over their characters stops. The romantic portrait of the laidback personality type of the film’s lead is where the film’s intrigue really lies.
The Dude is shown as a mythical character, unphased by all the choas that surrounds him. It’s not to say that he doesn’t react to it – but refuses to become overwhelmed or care too much for it. Despite the mythos surrounding the character – I still remain unsure of how much of an ideal he supposed to be. What I am sure of, is the film’s purpose (conscious or not) as a dialogue between white heterosexual males. Sam Elliot’s cowboy narrator is a type of character that has been seen in film before – a father figure or wise drinking buddy that supplies wisdom and narrative for those of his type. Even the John Goodman sidekick has an element of appeal, as a misguided friend.
The film’s portrait of women (the plot centers around a money-hungry porn star wife), homosexuals (a minor character) and the lack of ethnic minorities (the closest thing we get are the gang of foreigners – who still remain outside of The Dude) marks it has a film essentially made for those in the American majority. That’s not to say that it’s in any way sexist, homophobic or racist – the Julianne Moore character, while poked fun at, is certainly shown by the film’s end to be of more use than her rich father. That’s not to say that the film can’t be enjoyed by all – but there is an element of a continuing dialogue of experience between those in the social majority. All of the characters inside that relm – which I’d limit to American, working-class white hetereosexual men (the true majority) – are accepted and honored by the film’s close.
If The Dude is taken is an ideal, there is a revealed level of change between what the is admired in the group the film is meant to appeal to. There is both a sense of accepted (if not glamorized) mediocracy – the character is unemployed, is easily beaten and uses drugs and alcohol to no end – and the stereotypical assertiveness (although confused) and heroism. The Dude isn’t perfect, yet is glamorized because of it – and still essentially “wins” in the end.
The Coen brothers’ films have always had a real element of noir in them, and The Big Lebowski is no different. The plotline is engaging enough – and may not be the full appeal for me – but their noir roots tug too much at the end. The film generally is split into many ends – a bowling competition that never amounts to anything, a visualization of drug usage that is somewhat force-fed into the overall plot, a romanticizing of The Dude and a noir. When one element becomes the film’s focus, it feels out of place. There is a juggling act between co-existing pieces that isn’t handled completely well.
The Big Lebowski might be a part of their noir lineup of unexpected characters and settings – but serves more interesting as a portrait of a mythological social majority character, and how he relates to his peers.