Thursday, April 19, 2012

I still don't love Lebowski

When I first watched Joel and Ethan Coen's cult hit The Big Lebowski in my parents' basement in probably either the summer or Christmas of 1998, I thought there must have been some kind of defect in my character for not liking it more.

Even then, I knew what people thought of it, and the adulation has become a genuine phenomenon in the ensuing years. Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski seemed to instantly join the pantheon of great cinematic characters, his adventures a kind of post-modern epic that immediately clicked with a legion of devoted viewers.

Well, not for me. And not for my wife, either.

We had both struggled with our inability to like The Big Lebowski more than we did. We knew we were crazy. I mean, everyone loves The Big Lebowski. Right?

So about a month ago we acknowledged we both wanted to see it again, and this was surprisingly able to happen this past Sunday night. I say "surprisingly" because I assumed it wouldn't be available on Netflix streaming. I was looking it up just to add it to my DVD queue, and there it was, ready to be played instantly. That was the afternoon, and it immediately became the headliner for our Sunday night slate of television programming.

Guess what? After watching it again, we still didn't like it all that much.

I'm being a bit provocative by saying that. I think it's definitely a "good movie," and there are dozens of little details I appreciate about it.

But this is the movie many people describe as their favorite Coen brothers movie, and I just can't go there with that. Especially when the Coen filmography also includes masterpieces like Raising Arizona and Fargo.

When I ranked the Coens' 14 films back in early 2010 (this was before True Grit), I ranked Lebowski sixth behind Raising Arizona, Fargo, Miller's Crossing, Blood Simple and The Hudsucker Proxy. Having watched it again, I would leap-frog both A Serious Man and Barton Fink over it, and leave it to do battle with other films that leave me with mixed feelings (The Man Who Wasn't There, No Country for Old Men and Intolerable Cruelty).

If I were to go back and put myself in the mindset of the 24- or 25-year-old me from 1998, the thing I was probably expecting from Lebowski was something more along the lines of Raising Arizona. Like Arizona, it featured a colorful cast of characters working in the mode of a crime comedy.

But aside from both movies featuring John Goodman, the comparison pretty much ends there. There isn't what I would consider to be a single "mean" moment in Raising Arizona. The movie's heart shines through every scene. And by that I don't mean the movie is sickening or syrupy in any way -- it just gives its characters a fair shake and loves them despite their (ample) faults.

Lebowski, on the other hand, seems to resort to meanness on multiple occasions, and overall it just feels jaded. The problems could actually start with the beloved Dude himself. The ideal Lebowski, as I see him, is some kind of innocent rube who shows surprising smarts when it's required of him. And even if he is essentially passive in a world full of raging personalities, there's something sublime about his passivity.

But that's not really the Dude we get. This Dude really is a loser, and I don't find him half as lovable as I think I'm supposed to. There are things about his character that I like, such as his epic quest to get compensation for a urine-stained rug. But overall I find him to be more sour and ornery than I want this ideal Dude to be. It seems to me that his essential Dudeness should keep him above the fray, in an almost Forrest Gump-like way. But he's right down in the dirty fray, his hair soaked with alcohol, his bathroom slippers muddy with grime.

When I think of The Big Lebowski in the abstract, the scene that comes to mind is the scene where the porn entourage breaks into the Dude's bathroom and drops a ferret into his bathtub. In itself it is not any more memorable than many other scenes, but I suspect I remember it because it encapsulated a couple things that were troubling me on my first viewing, which troubled me yet again this time:

1) The film is more aggressive and violent than it really needs to be.

2) The film really doesn't have a point.

It's that last part I'd like to focus on now. And now is probably a good time to mention another Coen movie that was conspicuously absent when I listed the relative worth of the Coens' movies above. In fact, it was their next movie, O Brother Where Art Thou?

Both O Brother and Lebowski share a narrative structure that does not really work for me, which is essentially this: They aren't so much stories as a series of bizarre vignettes. The structure itself works a little better, I think, in O Brother, since the events are more or less based on Homer's The Odyssey. I like Lebowski more than that film, but I think its structure may be more unsatisfying. I know this has a cultural forbear as well, as it's more or less a Philip Marlowe story with The Dude in the Marlowe role. But the plot convolutes itself to such an extent that I had to read the wikipedia plot summary just now to make sure I remembered exactly what happened -- and I just re-watched this movie three nights ago. (Granted, we also started watching it too late, and yes, I did have two White Russians to go along with the theme.)

Speaking of convoluted, that last paragraph was a prime example. But what I really want to say is this: The Big Lebowski is not for the viewer seeking that sense of catharsis that comes from traditional character development and narrative payoffs. And I guess I am that kind of viewer. If I am going to get into a movie that's mostly just vignettes, I want the characters themselves to speak to me more.

And I guess that's an essential problem I have with this movie: I just don't find the characters as interesting as other people seem to. I've already described my hesitations with The Dude, but what about Goodman's Walter? He spends the whole movie pulling guns on people, concocting cockamamie schemes and shouting down his nice bowling teammate, Donny (Steve Buscemi). Seriously, why does he spend the entire movie telling Donny to shut up? Is that supposed to be funny? Is that a part that "really works" for the people who love this movie?

What happens with Donny reveals the nastier Coens whom I've railed against in the past. Another movie conspicuously absent from my earlier listing of Coen titles is Burn After Reading, my least favorite Coen film. I found that film pretty much repulsive from start to finish, but one of the things that really stood out was the Coens' sadistic desire to punish nice people. Two very nice characters pay a dear price for their niceness in Burn After Reading, and I feel it's that same mentality that leaves Buscemi's Donny dead of a heart attack at the end of The Big Lebowski. I'm not saying that nice people must always prosper in the movies -- that would make the movies really uninteresting. But I like there to be some reasoning behind why they don't prosper, some essential message that relates to the themes of the movie we've been watching. I feel like Donny's death doesn't have any meaning within the context of this movie -- and it just makes my belief firmer that there's isn't much meaning behind anything that happens in this movie.

And what lesson does Walter, a bad person, learn from his bad behavior? That they won't ban you from a bowling alley for pointing a gun at a fellow bowler and cocking the hammer. That you can send kidnappers a bag of your dirty underwear without any real-world consequences. That you can illogically yell at a nice friend who just wants to get up to speed in the conversation, and when he dies as an indirect result of your boneheaded decisions, neither will this cause you any shame or guilt. "Fuck it, let's go bowling," says Walter.

Fuck it, I'm just never going to love The Big Lebowski.

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