If laughter is the best medicine, recommending The Big Lebowski to a terminally ill grandparent would be the equivalent to pulling the plug. What we have here is an incredible movie that transcends what can fall under the category of bad—a movie that raises the bar if you're hanging from it. Some say I exaggerate my claims when I say the The Big Lebowski is the most detestable film of all time, but they're mistaken. It's all true. I'd sooner send my son to fight an entire fleet of Nicaraguan druglords single-handedly than make him endure the two hours of hell on earth this picture so eloquently presents.
From the standpoint of cinematography it's brilliantly directed. Kudos, too, to a comedy receiving the writing and attention to detail most major pictures even fail to bring. Too often comedies are thought of as fodder and brushed under the industry's rug. After all, if comedy is the easiest entertainment to engage, it might by default be the hardest to perfect. Most get the treatment, costumes and care rivaling sketch comedy skits. Rarely would a movie leaning more toward humor garner consideration for any high prize or praise. Our society mistakenly considers the idea of enlightening the audience more important than entertaining it, failing to realize the formers full potential could never be reached without balance with the latter. So in order to proceed with the much-needed and more compelling negativity we've got to get the compliments out of the way: this comedy is shot well, paced well, and written well.
The execution is Lebowski's big failing. My disillusionment first started with reference to its cult status. If many others like what you like, odds are a common interest is worth looking into, if not a blind buy. Despite my cousin's warning that it's "about bowling" (read: it's boring), I went ahead and blind bought it for its attractive price, gambling it would lean toward good. Upon impulse buying some new entertainment you already want to like it, since it's tangible and cannot be returned. After an initial viewing I thought it alright, but the movie's evil, underlying tepidity eventually separated my brain's enthusiasm and optimism from its cold, sterile, iron-fisted reason—subduing one and highlighting the other. The end result was an eventual disdain for the picture's poorly-executed almost everything, and for its legion of loyal fans who quote and admire The Dude and co. as if it were ever in style.
This type of humor is specific enough to warrant a second viewing. "Perhaps you didn't get it," was the consensus. Some said this as if to suggest the style were elaborate enough to go over anyone's head. Upon second screening it was cemented, as suspected: there is nothing to get. The defining attribute in anything worth a damn in life has always been impossible to describe and more easily alluded to: it's not the notes, it's what's between them; read between the lines; it's not what is said but how it's said. There are enough clever lines in The Big Lebowski to make a classic. The execution fails not because it's dry or deadpan, but because it's vapid. The main characters act as if they're trying to get in on the joke instead of playing it straight and unwittingly being a part of them—a slight change that could've meant a saved movie. The Dude himself is one-dimensional, even for all his screen time and representation of a living cliche. He's padded evenly with a cast of cardboard characters who all slave to serve a central plot which, as mentioned, is purposeless.
There's an irony in painstakingly leveling out a plot just to showcase the eccentricities of people caught in it and the trivialities of their actions, that ends up working against the movie. It's not an irony the Coens meant to be caught, nor would it absolve anything, as trivialities, whimsy, and absurdity are their own justification when it comes to comedy. Humor can be bold in an absolute way rarely awarded in serious efforts, though I'll add boldness is usually an enveloped pushed too far. Most comedies die by the more is more mentality and go BoldX2. The Big Lebowski safely strays from this pitfall, at least on paper. The writing is far from a fault with this picture.
A flat, phoned-in delivery is a fault but also a symptom of excessive style. Everyone in the movie is imprisoned by their own gimmicks and indulgence of odd nuances. They're barely given room to breath and can only puppeteer the shallow corpses they should be shading with personality. Inexcusable, considering the working concept. The Coens created a plot centered around an admirable oaf. Few things could lend more easily to an endearing character than romanticizing an easy-going, apathetic, middle-aged dude who abides only to taking it easy. Unfortunately Dude's infectious personality might've spread to the to the Coens, cast and crew's overall approach. At the end of near two hours running time I felt inundated by style and distracted by smoke and mirrors.
For the purpose of furthering mankind I suffered through this picture a fourth time only yesterday. Viewing it didn't work with a clean slate, nor after studying every angle. Like a priest full of conviction about to enter the other end of the confessional, I asked even the most dark and damning questions, "Am I just bitter that this is what came after Fargo?" No, but there was something beyond. There was something outside easily identified mediocrity. There was more to it than the canned performances that shifted it from tepid to bad. Something lay behind the expertly controlled camera and frigid cast and catapulted this movie from no good to great disdain. Making up the remainder of that final inch could only be the film's fans.
Steve Albini has a gem of a quote that goes, "If you listen to music and all you get out of it is sound, I pity you." He speaks of a basic concept: no art is wholly separate from reality. As reality is always changing, that way we value and interpret said art will work likewise. Everything is subject to effect your perception of art. If you're Christian you might have a gripe with John Lennon's music after his "[Beatles are] bigger than Jesus" claim. Yeah, well, you know, this is just like, uh, my opinion, man, but when you're flooded in subpar movie quotes from types even less qualified to tell them, it begins to take a toll. Add its status as a coveted cult classic with a general overpraise overlooking its blandness and there's enough injustice there to create a flame. And bland describes the cinematic experience to a t. For the comedy's bogus entry onto IMDB's Top 250, there's not one laugh out loud moment. Its excess of quotable one-liners is more telling to its one-dimensional nature than its clever writing. It's far too meticulous in design to convey its carefree message.
I'm led to conclude the movie's greatest worth comes in the form of commodity—feigned appreciation for effect. It's a shiny object for a certain crowd to pull out and feel better about themselves; a tassel aiming to allure but only serving as a Litmus separating substantive from shallow; a decorative pin with no greater purpose than to point out hipsters; a mindless championing of the little crippled lamb that could. Being different is only admirable when it works. You know the joke sadly rests at your expense when you catch it being quoted by Veronica Mars. Liking something solely out of novelty might be Dude-like, after all.
Though I'm not sure exactly what drives this movie's affection, the cynic in me suspects it might be that the film itself exhibits the very mediocrity its protagonist passively accepts. Perhaps some are deluded under the idea that being bad on purpose makes something good. Jeff Dowd—the real-life Dude—seems to disagree with his depiction as a passionless burnout. He is in turn an ambitious man set on "living life to the fullest," which works in opposition to this movie's ideologies of indifference and glorifying blandness. The movie's message may be that it's alright not to want anything out of life, but the terrible consequence there, is with no flame to push you forward you're no longer alive.