The Big Lebowski

lebowski 1If you’ve spent any time reading this blog, you know I don’t really like to review “straight” comedies. In my opinion, comedy is an area where aesthetics looks blind. As a point of reference [and in the spirit of this being a Coen Brothers review], my wife [whom I consider to have impeccable aesthetic sensibility] thinks Raising Arizona is absolutely hysterical. She owned it prior to our meeting. She watches it at least once a year. Quotes it every other week. I, on the other hand, think Raising Arizona is absolute drivel. I have never been able to understand what anyone finds remotely funny about that movie. [I actually intend to review it next just to get it over with… so the dread won’t be hanging over me like some unpleasant invention of Dick Cheney’s screenwriting alter ego.] That said, I will now pronounce:

The Big Lebowski is the funniest movie ever made.

Of all the statements of judgment I have piled into the 102 posts of this blog, that is the only one I can’t stand behind with the full force of my critical righteousness. In fact, what I have pronounced in bold would have been much better suited to a confession. Something which has the form:

I think The Big Lebowski is the funniest movie ever made.

The film makes me laugh until my sides hurt. Jeff Bridges is sublime as The Dude. John Goodman’s Walter is summed up by the brilliance of always being “calmer than you are” because he has infuriated you so deeply. John Turturro magnetizes in his five minutes of screen time. The story makes no sense to me, the cinematography is [surprisingly] uninteresting, but man, does this movie make me laugh.

I have no idea how to score the ability [or inability] to inspire my laughter. And, in a nutshell [bounded by an infinite space], this is the reason I am so opposed to reviewing comedies.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) There are a few bouts of exposition in this script. They are all delivered to the Dude in order to clarify some issue surrounding the kidnapping of Bunny Lebowski. The first instance comes on pages 26-27 [of the pdf on the site forums]

LEBOWSKI
I received this fax this morning.

Brandt hastily pulls a flimsy sheet from his clipboard and
hands it to the Dude.

LEBOWSKI
As you can see, it is a ransom note.
Sent by cowards. Men who are unable
to achieve on a level field of play.
Men who will not sign their names.
Weaklings. Bums.

THE DUDE EXAMINES THE FAX:

WE HAVE BUNNY. GATHER ONE MILLION DOLLARS IN UNMARKED NON-
CONSECUTIVE TWENTIES. AWAIT INSTRUCTIONS. NO FUNNY STUFF.

DUDE
Bummer.

Lebowski looks soulfully at the Dude.

LEBOWSKI
Brandt will fill you in on the
details.

He wheels his chair around to once again gaze into the fire.
Brandt tugs at the Dude’s shirt and points him back to the
hall.

HALLWAY

The soprano’s singing is once again faint. Brandt’s voice
is hushed:

BRANDT
Mr. Lebowski is prepared to make a
generous offer to you to act as
courier once we get instructions for
the money.

DUDE
Why me, man?

BRANDT
He suspects that the culprits might
be the very people who, uh, soiled
your rug, and you’re in a unique
position to confirm or, uh, disconfirm
that suspicion.

DUDE
So he thinks it’s the carpet-pissers,
huh?

BRANDT
Well Dude, we just don’t know.

That’s actually a fair amount of information clotted into one small passage of dialogue. I don’t believe the brothers do much to distract us from the fact that they’re feeding us this exposition either [although the carpet-pissers line does some damage in this regard]. My guess as to why the scene doesn’t bother the reader is because we’re way the hell out on page 27. The preceding 26 pages contained absolutely zero exposition. In fact, we almost NEED a moment of unsullied expo just to get our bearings in this story. Had the Brothers waded any deeper into their script without sending us some sort of plot lifeline, I’m afraid we would have lost track of where they were going. By the time we get to page 27, the script is in danger of becoming a series of loosely related skits, if it doesn’t get reined in [at least a little bit].

We aren’t subjected to any more [egregious] exposition until page 92:

DUDE
It’s a complicated case, Maude.
Lotta ins, lotta outs. Fortunately
I’ve been adhering to a pretty strict,
uh, drug regimen to keep my mind,
you know, limber. I’m real fucking
close to your father’s money, real
fucking close. It’s just–

MAUDE
I keep telling you, it’s the
Foundation’s money. Father doesn’t
have any.

DUDE
Huh? He’s fucking loaded.

MAUDE
No no, the wealth was all Mother’s.

DUDE
But your father–he runs stuff, he–

MAUDE
We did let Father run one of the
companies, briefly, but he didn’t do
very well at it.

DUDE
But he’s–

MAUDE
He helps administer the charities
now, and I give him a reasonable
allowance. He has no money of his
own. I know how he likes to present
himself; Father’s weakness is vanity.
Hence the slut.

This scene gives us the background information on The Big Lebowski that makes his contribution to the story more comprehensible. It will also lead [directly] to the Dude’s best deduction regarding the kidnapping “case”. [We’ll cite that scene in just a minute.] It works because the Brothers divert attention from the paragraphs of exposition Maude is giving us by having her act as her own “pope in the pool”. The entire time the Dude and Maude speak Maude is “lying on her back with her knees pulled in” because:

MAUDE
It increases the chances of
conception.

The Dude spits some White Russian.

DUDE
Increases?

MAUDE
Well yes, what did you think this
was all about? Fun and games?

DUDE
Well…no, of course not–

MAUDE
I want a child.

On screen we will see her lying on her back with her knees pulled in while she delivers the exposition about her father. Immediately after she delivers the exposition, we then have the Dude spitting White Russian all over the floor. The Brothers have paid for their information dumping by making the scene which surrounds the dump both funny to watch, and funny to hear.

We’ll look at one more example. Not because there is any need to justify the points I’m about to award on this part of this question, but simply because I found the writing so enjoyable to read. In other words, we will look at one more example in order to celebrate inspired comedic writing. From pages 98-100:

DUDE
I’m saying if he knows I’m a fuck-
up, then why does he still leave me
in charge of getting back his wife?
Because he fucking doesn’t want her
back, man! He’s had enough! He no
longer digs her! It’s all a show!
But then, why didn’t he give a shit
about his million bucks? I mean, he
knew we didn’t hand off his briefcase,
but he never asked for it back.

WALTER
What’s your point, Dude?

DUDE
His million bucks was never in it,
man! There was no money in that
briefcase! He was hoping they’d
kill her! You throw out a ringer
for a ringer!

WALTER
Yeah?

DUDE
Shit yeah!

WALTER
Okay, but how does all this add up
to an emergency?

DUDE
Huh?

WALTER
I’m saying, I see what you’re getting
at, Dude, he kept the money, but my
point is, here we are, it’s shabbas,
the sabbath, which I’m allowed to
break only if it’s a matter of life
and death–

DUDE
Walter, come off it. You’re not
even fucking Jewish, you’re–

WALTER
What the fuck are you talking about?

DUDE
You’re fucking Polish Catholic–

WALTER
What the fuck are you talking about?
I converted when I married Cynthia!
Come on, Dude!

DUDE
Yeah, and you were–

WALTER
You know this!

DUDE
And you were divorced five fucking
years ago.

WALTER
Yeah? What do you think happens
when you get divorced? You turn in
your library card? Get a new driver’s
license? Stop being Jewish?

DUDE
This driveway.

AS HE TURNS:

WALTER
I’m as Jewish as fucking Tevye

DUDE
It’s just part of your whole sick
Cynthia thing. Taking care of her
fucking dog. Going to her fucking
synagogue. You’re living in the
fucking past.

WALTER
Three thousand years of beautiful
tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax–
YOU’RE GODDAMN RIGHT I LIVE IN THE
PAST! I–Jesus. What the hell
happened?

We’ve just been given the sum of all of the Dude’s detective work throughout the preceding 100 pages. It is very clearly exposition. The Dude is just telling Walter what he thinks The Big Lebowski has been up to. Unfortunately, if the Dude doesn’t just come right out and tell Walter, then the audience WILL NOT know.

That is, in my [literal] book, the worst kind of exposition that exists. I won’t be taking off for its existence in this script because it is sandwiched between all those uproariously funny objections about emergencies, Jewishness, and shabbas. The fact that the Coens began setting these objections up on page 44 of the script is fantastic. That kind of setup and reveal execution is exactly the way you make exposition not read like exposition.

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) Perhaps it is not surprising that I should find the subtext in this script centers on cooperation. We saw in our review of Fargo that cooperation is just a Coen Brothers code word for love. The fact that ties those two sentences together [and allows them to make critical sense as a completed inference] is that The Big Lebowski was the film the Brothers made immediately after Fargo. It is not unreasonable to infer the topic was still on their mind.

On the other hand, a deep analysis of Coen Brothers material would be likely to find that they are ALWAYS writing about cooperation. It may be their central motif. Perhaps, the subtext in The Big Lebowski is linked to cooperation because the subtext in ANY Coen Brothers script is linked to cooperation. [There is a tautology desperate to be called out in the bold of my usual style summarizing this paragraph, but I decline to write it… for once]

Instead I will posit that one of the main reasons this script spins its subtextual wheels over the blacktop of cooperation is because it is ALWAYS funny when stories do this. I believe this is a fact about comedy which I have neglected to learn because I have always been so afraid to make any critical pronouncements about humorous writing. Fortunately for the world, the Brothers did not neglect to learn this fact… possibly, they became the masters of its application.

We are dealing with a principle which is the antithesis of the first rule of improv:

First Rule of Improv: Always agree with all suggestions.
First Rule of Comedy: Always disagree with all suggestions.

Somehow, in spite of the fact that the Dude and Walter never agree on anything, these guys are best friends and genuinely seem to care about each other [as much as they are capable of caring]. In The Big Lebowski, disagreement is a sign of interest in another person. Because any page of the script [featuring the Dude and Walter] would show this principle in action, I’ll be stingy and only include one example to illustrate the whole. From pages 58-60:

the-big-lebowskiWALTER
That wasn’t her toe.

DUDE
Whose toe was it, Walter?

WALTER
How the fuck should I know? I do
know that nothing about it indicates–

DUDE
The nail polish, Walter.

WALTER
Fine, Dude. As if it’s impossible
to get some nail polish, apply it to
someone else’s toe–

DUDE
Someone else’s–where the fuck are
they gonna–

WALTER
You want a toe? I can get you a
toe, believe me. There are ways,
Dude. You don’t wanna know about
it, believe me.

DUDE
But Walter–

WALTER
I’ll get you a toe by this
afternoon–with nail polish. These
fucking amateurs. They send us a
toe, we’re supposed to shit our-
selves with fear. Jesus Christ. My
point is–

DUDE
They’re gonna kill her, Walter, and
then they’re gonna kill me–

WALTER
Well that’s just, that’s the stress
talking, Dude. So far we have what
looks to me like a series of
victimless crimes–

DUDE
What about the toe?

WALTER
FORGET ABOUT THE FUCKING TOE!

A waitress enters.

WAITRESS
Could you please keep your voices
down–this is a family restaurant.

WALTER
Oh, please dear! I’ve got news for
you: the Supreme Court has roundly
rejected prior restraint!

DUDE
Walter, this isn’t a First Amendment
thing.

WAITRESS
Sir, if you don’t calm down I’m going
to have to ask you to leave.

WALTER
Lady, I got buddies who died face-
down in the muck so you and I could
enjoy this family restaurant!

THE DUDE GETS UP:

DUDE
All right, I’m leaving. I’m sorry
ma’am.

WALTER
Don’t run away from this, Dude!
Goddamnit, this affects all of us!

The Dude has left frame; Walter calls after him:

WALTER
Our basic freedoms!

He looks defiantly around.

WALTER
I’m staying. Finishing my coffee.

He stirs the coffee, bopping his head in time to the Muzak,
affecting nonchalance.

WALTER
Finishing my coffee.

The Dude and Walter disagree about every topic which comes up during this exchange. They bicker and pester each other like the stereotypical couple who have been married for fifty years. Yet, even though their voices raise and the curse word “fuck” gets recklessly tossed around this family restaurant at close to maximum volumes, they never really get angry with each other. Their disagreements seem to almost be mediated by an unwritten contract between them. Some sort of “if I say X, you say Y” type of arrangement.

It is quite funny [at least to me].

However, I’m not sure how revealing it all is. To be honest, everyone disagrees with everyone in this script and The Dude, Walter, and Donny are the only characters who seem to link disagreement with interest or caring. I’m just not sure the “subtextual meaning” of disagreement in The Big Lebowski is evenly distributed throughout its pages:

6 out of 10 points.

Part C) I’ve just given the Brothers a mildly hard time for not delivering a consistent subtextual message. Basically, I just accused them of going for comedy over form. Since, however, their intent was to be funny, I’m not even sure it makes sense to count their subtextual choice as a mistake. At any rate, whatever shortcomings their script has in terms of subtext, they more than make up for it with their character individuation.

The Jesus was so impressively individuated there are rumors John Turturro has tried to develop material for a stand-alone film based on the character. Walter’s impressive ability to turn any topic into a discussion of Vietnam is close to a dialogue superpower. Nevertheless, the star of this hyper-individuated show is The Dude. We’ll begin our discussion of his individuation by quoting his very first line in the script. From page 4:

The hands haul him out again, dripping and gasping.

VOICE
WHERE’S THE FUCKING MONEY, SHITHEAD!

DUDE
It’s uh, it’s down there somewhere.
Lemme take another look.

His head is plunged back in.

If that is not the very last thing you would expect someone to say, who has just had their head shoved into a toilet several times, then I don’t know what is. On top of this, it’s hysterically funny [to me] AND emblematic of the Dude’s overall character. This is a guy who is like no other guy you’ve ever met before in your life. The Dude responds to a home invasion with sarcastic humor. Clearly, The Dude doesn’t get riled up very easily. The Dude stays calm [except for when he argues with Walter].

We’ll look at one more [brief] example from pages 29-30:

DUDE
It’s all a goddamn fake. Like Lenin
said, look for the person who will
benefit. And you will, uh, you know,
you’ll, uh, you know what I’m trying
to say—

At one time in his life, the Dude was very likely someone who could have an intelligent conversation about important social issues while supporting his positions with quotes from Lenin texts. The version of the Dude we are familiar with has abandoned intelligent conversation in favor of ease of life. The Dude we know wants to bowl, get high, avoid real work, and talk about himself in the third person. What I love most about this quote is how LITERALLY lost the Dude gets as soon as he tries to resurrect part of his younger persona. He completely loses his train of thought. It’s brilliant.

The dialogue individuation in this script is more perfect than a perfect score can imply:

10 out of 10 points.

Here is the link to part two of this review.

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2 responses to “The Big Lebowski

  1. As the movie that got me interested in the craft of writing movies, I endorse all of the above.

    • Very happy to hear I am not the only one who finds this movie so funny.

      Its merits convince me that at some point I am going to have to get down in Walter’s muck, which runs through the divide between comedy and drama, and make some sense of the weakness in my critical approach.

      Essentially I have avoided comedy because it seems impossible to make it be objective. I have not been able to understand how to mechanize the taking of its aesthetic temperature.

      My appreciation for the humor in this movie convinces me it is worth investigating. After all, we wouldn’t be human if we did not laugh.

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