For a certain kind of Dude of my generation: homely, underachieving, disorganized, misunderstood by the larger world, The Big Lebowski is more than a movie. It is a religious touchstone. It is a movie which told us that no matter what absurd frustrations we get mixed up in, they're not that important, and we can zen our way through to the other side. Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar eats you.
I've never been a huge fan of the Coen Brothers. There is something about their moviemaking that is strangely diffuse - technical exercises that go to enormous efforts to show how sadistically little they care about their characters. In the case of No Country for Old Men, it became a downright exercise in sadism. Alfred Hitchcock would make us squirm in our seats to watch people avoid death, the Coen Brothers made us squirm just so we could watch the protagonist be hunted down like a varmint. Inside Llewyn Davis made us try to watch a mediocre folk singer who was not only a bad human being, but not a particularly interesting one. Even comedies like Burn After Reading delight in an anti-social sadism.
But then there are a few partial exceptions to this rule: A Serious Man, O Brother Where Art Thou, Fargo, and that pinnacle of Western Civilization, The Big Lebowski. Lebowski came out the year after Fargo. Fargo was a very fine movie, but let's face it, it's not as great as Siskel, Ebert, and every other critic in America told us it was; but when Lebowski was released, critics couldn't forgive it for not being Fargo.
As beloved as Fargo's become, The Big Lebowski is entirely another order of beloved. It is the kind of comedy the Coen Brothers should have spent their whole careers making. It's incredibly funny, but it's not a laugh riot after the manner of the Farrelly Brothers or Zucker Brothers. If anything, it's funny after the manner of studio comedies from the 30's to the 60's.
For all its hundreds of profanities, Lebowski is something much more old-fashioned than would appear. The very plot itself is loosely based on the Howard Hawks movie: The Big Sleep (penned by, of all people, William Faulkner). But while The Big Sleep seems to come by its labyrinthine incomprehensibility completely naturally, The Big Lebowski is the definition of mannered. Everything about it is deliberately surreal in a manner that tells you that they want, in their typically sadistic way, to disturb you out of any sense of familiarity.
But whereas No Country for Old Men or Inside Llewyn Davis are exercises in bleak, Lebowski is an exercise in delight. The confusion of the dialogue flows like music, nearly every line is not only quotable and clever, but delightful in precisely that way that one delight piles on top of the next. For once, we're meant to enjoy a Coen Brothers' Movie.
Of course, I see Lebowski much less than I used to. I've pretty much stopped drinking, and there isn't much sense in watching The Big Lebowski if you're not as drunk as The Dude. The last time I saw it, for once it seemed impossibly mannered and arch in a way it never seemed when I wasn't sober. This time, the second time I saw it on a giant screen, it was much much better, but it was still a very different experience. Seeing it on the big screen, you can see what so many critics missed in the movie. The filmmaking, as always with the Coen brothers, is impeccable. Not a hair on the frame of a shot out of place, and yet such pains in filmmaking point up just how trivial the movie is.
This is not a movie meant for the theater. This is a movie meant for a dingy, smelly, dimly lit apartment - the kind of apartment most college kids live in. If the immaculate visuals draw attention to themselves, you might forget that the spirit of this movie is the exact opposite of those visuals. You can completely disagree with all those critics, as I still do, and still think it would be an even greater movie if it weren't quite so well made.
But maybe the great visuals are a sign of deeper meanings. If you wanted, you could give so much more mythical weight if you took it seriously - you could think about how Walter and The Dude represent the two sides of The Sixties, about how the "Big" Lebowski represents all that's most hypocritical in Capitalism, about how The Dude could be seen as a martyr-like figure - perhaps stylized to look like Christ himself, about how Walter Sobchak could be seen as cinema's ultimate incarnation of neoconservatism and how he seems to prefigure everything from the Iraq War's rationale to the Tea Party, about how the nihilists eerily carry The Dude's Buddhist essentialism to its logical conclusion, about how Maude Lebowski and the Dude represent the two sides of the Bohemian world uniting, about how Brandt could be the 'Big' Lebowski's son and represents the kind of sycophantic Young Republican who inherited the world, about how Jackie Treehorn represents a lost Golden Age of American eroticism, about how Bunny is the dreams of the American heartland perverted by Hollywood. Perhaps The Cowboy/Narrator is present to make us ponder these mythical implications.
But that would ruin everything about why this movie is so beloved. Let's allow these supposedly deeper meanings to exist beneath the surface. Part of the enjoyment of The Big Lebowski, and part of the character of The Dude and those of us who aspire to be more like him is the ability to know that deeper meanings exist, but it defeats the point of life to look for them too hard. Life exists to be enjoyed, not endured. Would that we in the audience, and would that the Coen Brothers, could take that lesson more to heart.