The Coen brothers parlay much of their dramatic action into exploiting the subconscious – they’d rather go weird than go boring, and their body of work reflects that. That said, The Big Lebowski is one of the most overrated films in their catalog, if not in the category of cult classics.
Before you start crying Armond White, hear me out.
The Big Lebowski had to be a box office failure in order for it to become the cult favorite that it is today. It had to be a marquee martyr, the same way that Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World will be seen as some lamb led to slaughter, but let’s be clear: theater people didn’t like it. The reality is that there’s a certain kind of audience that spends money on seeing a film in a theater, and in terms of averages, the people that have the income to do so tend to be more conservative. They don’t care about some guy wandering around in a cardigan, or, in the case of fellow “victim” Scott Pilgrim, seeing Michael Cera play the same part for the fifth time in a row with video game shtick. The audience for The Big Lebowski has been the passive-aggressive, fairly broke home viewing market, and that audience is growing.
Although a slob on the surface, Jeff Lebowski is actually a meticulous control freak. In this sense, he is the patron Saint of the Internet, an adorable manifestation of the community of jerks that corral their stimulus intake on an hourly basis: watching what they want to watch, clicking whatever they want to click. Lebowski only sips White Russians, he only worships bowling and only goes by the handle The Dude. In this cultural context, one could say that The Dude is the uncle to Juno, long-estranged.
The story itself does nothing to support this theme of control, randomly careening into satires of noir stereotypes that are shoe-horned (Treehorned?) into the plot. While straddling genres is a clever device, the hype of this “classic” quickly fades when one simply views The Big Lebowski on the merits of its narrative quality alone.
There’s these guys, and they love bowling… there’s a rich guy… Walter’s real mad… don’t mess with the Jesus. Oh look, Nihilists. The majority of return viewers for this film do so with the intention of episodic delight, and isn’t that what the Internet is about? It’s an accidental gem, not unlike the similarly overrated Touch of Evil. But unlike Welles’ Mexican bender, the track record of the Coens’ work up to this point gives no clear justification for the myriad spew of events of this film. No studio plucked it out of their hands, no edits were made without their consent. Their audacity continues to be one of their most admirable and detrimental traits as filmmakers.
And let’s not even get into the ramifications of being a bachelor subject to this movie. Do young men really need help being broke pieces of shit with no prospects? This film makes a hero out of the lovable fuck-up in your life, digging change out of the sofas and car seats of reality until college loans inch him/her toward grown-up jobs. I have and continue to keep a stern rule for young bachelors, notably those living on the cheap: No Lebowski or Bukowski until you’re 40 or rich. The influence of The Big Lebowski can require years of decompression and decent hygiene to pull a bachelor back into the gravity of the mainstream.
Speaking of selling out, let’s just acknowledge that a movie is no longer a cult hit when it succeeds on home sales alone. Be it through streaming or DVD, home sales are the future of the box office, and Lebowski happened to be ahead of this trend. If the film came out during this era of The Long Tail1, in which volume is valued over quality, then it’s quite possible that The Big Lebowski could have been lost in the shuffle. Walter and The Dude came along at a time when DVD was offering the maxim in home selection in film, which made this guilty pleasure a go-to for the 18-30 demographic, with younger generations on the horizon. Simply put, The Big Lebwoski is an oddball that was in the right place at the right time. I’m still waiting for Repo Man to get that kind of treatment, the fan festivals and all.
To be fair, the simplicities of Lebowski are part of what makes it so accessible. The characters fit like an old bathrobe, demanding little of the casual viewer. For the shot-design nerds, the Coens have worked in a psychedelic pastiche of depth perception: men pop into bowling balls, nubile beach bunnies flail outward and pot-bellied athletes flourish in slow-motion chorus lines. Given these elements, The Big Lebowski is as worthy a candidate for 3-D conversion as there ever will be; including the internet, that makes the second mode of tech media that the Coen brothers had no idea this movie could someday adhere to. It’ll be fascinating to see how this movie endures over time, or if its theme of slackerdom merely speaks to the generation at hand. In the meantime, The Dude indeed abides.
1 Chris Anderson’s economic theory and book of the same name.