Sacred Cows is a series dedicated to overrated cultural artefacts and the more deserving ones we’ve lost sight of in their shadows. Each installment will pose an argument for one or the other, re-evaluating the worth of a text and the praise it has (or hasn’t) received.
This week, David Latham makes the case against The Big Lebowski.
Twenty years ago the Coen brothers released The Big Lebowski — a film that was not particularly relished by critics upon its release, but which has incrementally found itself elevated to cult status. We don’t yet fully understand how the mechanics of cult status work or who bestows such honorifics on a film, but such specimens are worthy of a sociological study. I suspect that in this case, persistence, psycho-semiotic babble and zealotry comprise the heavy artillery that broke down Chinese Walls around critics’ hearts, and forced a few of the weaker ones to relent and recant their original misgivings.
In a rather imaginative recent article on this very topic, Jeet Heer of The New Republic sought to provide his own sort of sociological rationale to explain why the charms of this film originally fell, and continue to fall, on fallow ground with some critics.
Like a modern day Emile Durkheim, Heer suggests the problem with the critics who did not like this film was that “naturalism has become a default critical yardstick for reviewers” who fail to appreciate that “the zinging (my italics) banter between the two characters is really a battle of philosophies”.
I guess those are possible explanations: that the doubtful critics are rusted-on social realists unable to penetrate the absurdist stylistic reaches and scorching philosophical planes the dialogue from The Big Lebowski works on. Another more compact explanation might be that the film is a mess.
Despite all the MacGuffins and pointless adornments within it that make it feel convoluted, the plot essentially revolves around a case of mistaken identity and an imagined kidnapping which propel our dope smoking, rambling and washed-out protagonist into “action”.
The Big Lebowski fails to deliver any of the tautness of a good “naturalist” film, owing firstly to the incredibly low stakes for the stoner middle-aged protagonist, “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges). The inert protagonist and lack of a driving story engine presumably are meant to be part of its insider appeal. Secondly the slackness of the film is not enhanced by a number of superfluous scenes that lead nowhere and serve no function, certainly not as entertainment. For example, a “surreal” sequence following the dude’s drink being spiked, or John Turturro’s Jesus character, who is cosmically unfunny.
Without doing an inventory of every reviewer who panned The Big Lebowski, I’d hasten to suggest that many among them will have enjoyed films that aren’t slavishly tethered to naturalism; Juliet of the Spirits, Wild Strawberries, Blue Velvet.
Heer suggests that the Coen’s leading-edge genre-chopping might explain its cold reception. The Big Lebowski certainly is a genre-chopping film but so was Miller’s Crossing — one of the great and esteemed films of the modern era, which also makes some knowing references to film history — so that won’t do as an explanation.
As for the philosophical issues the film supposedly explores through the dyad of Walter (John Goodman), the Dude’s violently reactive friend, and the Dude himself, a pacifist counter-cultural cipher, didn’t exactly reach any great heights. The introduction of nihilist standover men that resembled Kraftwerk acolytes was about as illuminating and funny as Ben Stiller in Zoolander.
What’s left to fill the void of a meandering plot and a camp treatment of the film’s philosophical interests?
For Heer, this is a character-driven film: “The Big Lebowski is a grower because the plot is less important than the characters.” I suspect he may be right here; it is meant to driven by its characters. Unfortunately, it’s debatable whether the characters are really that engaging or funny. Brandt (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) are underrated standouts, but the character of Walter, the damaged Vietnam war veteran, was grating, as was his constant refrain to Donny (Steve Buscemi) to “shut the fuck up”. Maude (Julianne Moore) — the dull and austere concept artist — perhaps functions for deep readers as an Epicurean, who knows? In these matters, theory allows you to tease out any meaning you want.
The thing that makes me think that I was on the receiving end of an elaborate and tortuous joke was the addition of David Thewlis to the cast — the most irritating screen presence I’ve ever encountered and emblematic of the horrors that abound in this film. After the whip-smart dialogue and plot intricacies of Miller’s Crossing — a fantastic homage to the noir and gangster genres with some hilarious moments — The Big Lebowski, I’m afraid is a film that is not deserving of its lofty cult status.