My only previous exposure to the Coen brothers was trying to watch Barton Fink after a friend at university had raved about it. I got bored and turned it off after about half an hour. I could see that it was stylish, but I didn't care about the characters and I couldn't see anything interesting happening to them.
The Big Lebowski I enjoyed a good deal more than Barton Fink, but I can see I'm unlikely to become the Coens' biggest fan. Every so often they'll be staring blankly at the freaks. They've created memorable characters with unique dialogue and in some cases the tendency to do insanely self-destructive things, but occasionally this becomes a problem. I'm thinking particularly of the scene after Jeff Bridges and John Goodman have just done the stupidest thing they'll do in the film, although that's a hard-fought title. What do our heroes do next? Why, they sit around and shout at each other until the movie gets bored and throws some more plot at them. It's a slightly uncomfortable scene, since they're not even threatening to do anything either likeable or interesting. Even the movie itself didn't seem to like them. Overall this film feels slightly cold to me, as if the Coens don't really care about the people they've created and simply think it's funny to have extreme things happen to them.
Apart from that, it's a great film.
It wasn't a box office hit, although it's not exactly a flop either. Titanic in its 20th week still beat The Big Lebowski on its opening, but it grossed 17 million just from the USA on a 15 million budget. It earned more than it cost. That's an important benchmark. However it's been called "the first cult film of the Internet era" and it's got passionate fans all over the place, who even hold an annual festival ("Lebowski Fest") that began in Louisville, Kentucky and has since spread to other cities. They love it for its unpredictability, its characters and of course its dialogue. This dialogue is astonishing. It's very, very funny, but furthermore it's playing with language in a way of which I think Raymond Chandler would have approved. (It's practically a remake of The Big Sleep
and it's got dialogue so explosively quotable as to rank alongside the 1946 Howard Hawks version.) I admire its vocabulary. You'll hear the word "micturated", while Jeff Bridges says that he "abides". "Confirm or disconfirm" is an atrocity, of course, but that's more characterisation. The Coens have a knack for coming completely out of left field, both in plot and dialogue, and I can see how that would blow some viewers away.
As for the plot, it really is the Big Sleep. Almost everyone from the original has a counterpart here who's doing the same things you'll remember. What makes it different is the characterisation. This isn't another noble adventure for Philip Marlowe, but instead a comedy of self-inflicted catastrophes starring a shambling hippy wreck of a protagonist (Jeff Daniels) and his psychotic Vietnam veteran friend (John Goodman). These guys don't need enemies to get themselves in trouble. Just put them behind the steering wheel of their own cars and you'll soon see a catastrophe. Daniels calls himself the Dude and has devoted his life to bowling, chilling out and ingesting substances. A job? What's that? It's amazing to see him talking to the rich and powerful because he simply doesn't know how to do it. Apparently the Coens based the Dude on a couple of real people, although Bridges also drew on what he himself had been like back in the Sixties and Seventies. More worryingly they also based Goodman's character on real people, including the filmmaker John Milius. Uh-huh. I'm a little bit scared now.
Anyway, I really like the effect this has on the story. These losers don't care about anything, really, although they can bullshit until the cows come home. They'll listen to you if you dangle money in front of them, but when it comes down to it they'll still be as reliable as a tissue paper cricket bat. On the other hand they'll also react if you smash up their apartment with a baseball bat and threaten them with (very) personal violence, but when it comes to the Dude's apartment I'm not sure you could easily tell the difference. This is good because it grounds their motivations. No one here is working from an abstract love of justice or his fellow man. No, instead they're trying to get at the money and not get killed in the meantime, which is funnier.
However even if we pretend that it's a straight adaptation, there are points of interest. The wild daughter (this time a trophy wife) comes across strongly in almost no screen time, the actors are both good and completely different from any other version and the pornography seems much more natural. There's also a minor motif of men who've been damaged by war, whether in Korea (the other Lebowski) or Vietnam (Goodman).
My favourite bits of the film are the dreams. The first one is merely weird, but the second one is a work of genius. It's a Busby Berkeley dance number with a naked woman being hurled into the air, bowling, Saddam Hussein and the red-legged scissormen from Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol. (If Morrison hadn't beaten them to it by a full decade, everyone would have said he'd been ripping off this film.) I was so impressed that I immediately rewound and watched it again.
Look out for the comedy mobile phone, by the way. You could land aircraft on that thing.
The cast is great. My favourite is John Turturro, who goes gloriously nuts in what's probably a total of sixty seconds' screen time and practically steals the entire movie. He's Jesus Quintana, the bowling pervert. John Goodman's playing against how I always imagine him, i.e. a cuddly easy-going guy, which makes me wonder how the movie would have been if he and Bridges had swapped roles. I have no complaints whatsoever with either of them in the movie as it stands, but I bet I'd have had no complaints the other way around either. John Goodman as the Dude. That would have been something. Bridges would have given us a great Walter Sobchak too. However of course I'm talking gibberish again since the Coens wrote the role of Sobchak specifically for Goodman. Finally there's the mighty Sam Elliott, who as far as I can see is playing God and doing a fine job of it too.
I wish I loved this film more than I do. It's full of wonderful, unique moments that you'd never get from any other filmmakers, but I can't truly warm to it. Nevertheless I have to admit that it's a classy, impressive piece of work and often very funny indeed. "It increases the chances of conception." "Obviously you're not a golfer."