Question: can you write about The Big Lebowski without just quoting the whole damn thing?
Answer: only with great difficulty.
‘Say Dude, where is your car?’
Lebowski is one of my great comfort movies: warm, funny, and a little bit weird. So it’s hard to write about with a critical eye.
I confess that I don’t really understand why people find the plot of Lebowski confusing. Ok, on a first view it seems to just throw more and more things into the pot – but when you think back through it, it’s actually quite tight. (But then, I also think the plot of The Big Sleep makes sense, except perhaps for the chauffeur, though I’ve always assumed that Arthur Geiger’s boyfriend killed him thinking he killed Geiger. Anyway).
A young trophy wife owes a rich man some money, she goes missing, apparently kidnapped and her husband enlists a man with exactly the same name as him to find her. This man – The Dude – tries to find her and get her back, and in the course of his odyssey he undergoes some trials and works out what happens.
It is an odyssey though, which makes Lebowski an entertaining link in the chain between Fargo (fake kidnapping) to O Brother Where Art Thou (an explicit riff on The Odyssey).
Essentially it’s an existential detective story about chaos vs order, expressed in its very being. The plot is tight and well ordered, but chaos seeps in from every side, through Maude, through some nihilists, and of course, through Walter (John Goodman). Perhaps that’s why it seems confusing on first go around. The audience is like Donnie (Steve Buscemi, in one of his straightest roles) – trying to keep up.
‘You have no frame of reference here Donnie. You’re like a child who wanders in in the middle of the movie…’
Order vs chaos is also the essence of Walter and The Dude, and their relationship. The Dude may appear like a quintessential stoner who will bring chaos wherever he goes, but he’s actually a terribly calm and well ordered person:
‘That rug really tiedthe room together’
Walter on the other hand is obsessed with order and rules, and yet in his desperate desire to restore order, he breeds chaos.
‘I don’t roll on shabbos’
‘This is not ‘Nam, this is bowling, there are rules’
Walter is the worst kind of friend. The one to whom you cannot say, ‘Just stop trying to help, you’re making it all worse.’ And yet he’s essential. The Dude abides. Walter brings life to him.
- Empty Roads? Oh yes. As the tumbleweed rolls over the hill into LOs Angeles and along to the beach at the start of the film it finds the only empty road in LA to roll along.
- Terrifyingly bright daylight? Outside is where stuff gets out of control. There might be war in the brightly lit bowling alley, but it has rules. Outside there are people like Bunny. Also, funerals.
- Incredible Carter Burwell score? Burwell wrote the score, but this movie’s music is mostly about the songs (and the arrival of T Bone Burnett in Coen land) – including one of the great uses of the Lacrimosa in film.
- Very realistic violence? I assume that’s what having your head stuck down a toilet. I’ve never experienced it.
- Extremely black lines delivered straight? We believe in nothing, Lebowski. Nothing. And tomorrow we come back and we cut off your chonson.
- An obsession with odd hair? Not particularly, but some haircuts are distinctive (notably Maude’s bob)
- And Pretty great female leads?. Well, we do have Maude Lebowski (and her ‘strongly vaginal’ art), who is very much her own woman and does come with a fairly full set of characteristics (unlike Bunny), which is solid. But, I must confess, Maude is one of my less favourite Coen leading ladies, and she is largely external chaos and commentary (plus a big clue) – which means I have less enthusiastic raving to do about her.