Today we complete our discussion begun last week of the Coen Brothers script The Big Lebowski. The following will link you to part one of the review, in case you missed it.
2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)
This is probably the best first place to mention that I really am not a fan of the page and a half of voice over which opens this story.
It’s over so fast that it doesn’t disturb the OVERALL read BUT: had this script been submitted to me for my opinion by an unknown writer, I would have had a hard time getting past it.
I’d count this as another instance of the Coens stylizing something to the point that it actually puts this reader off. Fortunately, it’s only a page and a half. Since I’ve now devoted a paragraph to not liking it [and some points will be deducted when it comes time to determine a score] I feel comfortable letting the point drop.
In my opinion, the opening page and a half of voice over is a darling that should have been kilt [to verbally stylize like the Stranger].
After this initial misstep, the Brothers launch us into the effortlessly hysterical invasion of the Dude’s home by the agents of Jackie Treehorn. The scene houses three of my all time favorite lines from a comedy. The already mentioned:
1. It’s uh, it’s down there somewhere.
Lemme take another look.
2. Obviously, you’re not a golfer.
3. Hey. At least I’m housebroken.
Seriously, those three lines make me laugh every time I watch this movie.
From here the Brothers take us to the bowling alley. We meet Walter and Donny and are immediately introduced to the fourth iconic line in six pages:
4. Yeah man, it really tied the room together.
The very next page brings us two more lines of pop-cultural literacy:
5. The Chinamen is not the issue.
6. Across this line you do not, uh—and also, Dude,
chinamen is not the preferred nomenclature.
We’re then introduced to my favorite running verbal joke in the script. Walter’s constant refrain of, “Am I wrong?”.
[…Omitted.] Am I wrong.
Am I wrong!
Okay. That, uh.
He elaborately clears his throat.
That rap really tied the room together
Did it not?
Pages 9 and 10 get us to The Big Lebowski’s house where the Dude follows Walter’s advice in seeking recompense for his soiled rug from the intended target of the soiling. There is no let down in comedy as we transition locations. Brandt and the Dude are almost as funny as Walter and the Dude.
If not for that opening voice over, this would be the funniest first ten pages of any comedy I’ve ever read. Actually, IN SPITE OF THAT opening voice over this is still the funniest first ten pages I’ve ever read. I can’t give them all the points because I promised in my opening paragraph that I would not.
[This is, without question, the first time I feel bad about adhering to a critical principle].
18 out of 20 points.
3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story? (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)
Part A) I don’t think this script does a very good job with its set-ups and reveals in the way I intended when I wrote this question and [thereby] decided to get into the business of rating story structures. That said, I’ve seen this movie at least five times and I’ve never had any problem making it from the opening credits to the closing credits. The story isn’t boring EVEN THOUGH it may be episodic.
How can that be? The whole point of putting setups and reveals into our scripts is to try and combat that episodic/boring feeling that pervades the scripts of authors who don’t take the time to plan these things. If the Coen Brothers can write a script in which [technically] only one thing ever gets revealed [and this thing was never openly setup to begin with] AND STILL have critics like me proclaim the finished product good, then WHY CAN’T EVERYONE ELSE?
To those who would ask that question, I will say… if you’re the type of writer who can mint dialogue like these guys can, then go for it. If you write dialogue this good, it can provide the momentum to your story normally provided by traditional setups and reveals. BUT, you have to make sure you’re writing MANY scenes like this one from pages 39-42:
That’s the simple part, Dude. When
we make the handoff, I grab the guy
and beat it out of him.
He looks at the Dude.
Yeah. That’s a great plan, Walter.
That’s fucking ingenious, if I
understand it correctly. That’s a
Swiss fucking watch.
Thaaat’s right, Dude. The beauty of
this is its simplicity. If the plan
gets too complex something always
goes wrong. If there’s one thing I
learned in Nam–
The phone chirps.
You are approaching a vooden britch.
When you cross it you srow ze bag
from ze left vindow of ze moving
kar. Do not slow down. Vee vatch
Click. Dial tone.
What’d he say? Where’s the hand-
There is no fucking hand-off, Walter!
At a wooden bridge we throw the money
out of the car!
We throw the money out of the moving
Walter stares dumbly for a beat.
We can’t do that, Dude. That fucks
up our plan.
Well call them up and explain it to
’em, Walter! Your plan is so fucking
simple, I’m sure they’d fucking
understand it! That’s the beauty of
Wooden bridge, huh?
I’m throwing the money, Walter!
We’re not fucking around!
The bridge is coming up! Gimme the
ringer, Dude! Chop-chop!
Fuck that! I love you, Walter, but
sooner or later you’re gonna have to
face the fact that you’re a goddamn
Okay, Dude. No time to argue. Here’s
There is the bump and new steady of the car on the bridge.
The Dude is twisting around to pull the money briefcase from
the back seat. Walter reaches one arm across Dude’s body to
grab the laundry.
And there goes the ringer.
He flings it out the window.
Your wheel, Dude! I’m rolling out!
What the fuck?
Your wheel! At fifteen em-pee-aitch
I roll out! I double back, grab one
of ’em and beat it out of him! The
Walter points across the seat at the paper-wrapped bundle.
You didn’t think I was rolling out
of here naked!
Walter has flung open his door and is leaning halfway out
over the road.
Fifteen! This is it, Dude! Let’s
take that hill!
Walter rolls out with his parcel, giving a loud grunt as he
hits the pavement. The car swerves and lurches and the Dude,
cursing, takes the wheel.
Walter tumbles onto the shoulder and–RAT-TAT-TAT-TAT!–muzzle
flashes tear open the wrapping paper.
INSIDE THE CAR
The car rocks and the Dude wrestles with the wheel.
The car clunks and screams around in a skid.
The Dude is thrown forward as the car hits something.
As the Dude struggles out holding the satchel of money. The
front of his car is crumpled into a tree. The car body saps
back to the left, where the rear wheel has been shot out.
WALTER is just rising from the ground massaging an
The Dude runs up the road toward the bridge,
frantically waving the satchel in the air.
WE HAVE IT! WE HAVE IT!!
There is a distant engine roar. A motorcycle bumps up onto
the road from the ravine under the bridge and, tires
squealing, skids around to speed away in the opposite
direction. It is closely followed by two more roaring
WE HAVE IT!!. . . We have it!
The Dude and Walter stand in the middle of the road, watching
the three red tail lights fishtail away.
AFTER A LONG STARING SILENCE:
Ahh fuck it, let’s go bowling.
And really, how many scenes like that have you got in you?
If your answer is a lot, then I salute you. I’ll review all your scripts and someday write an unauthorized [and unwanted] book about you. If your answer is less than a lot be like the rest of us mortals and work on your setups and reveals.
10 out of 10 points.
Part B) What, exactly, does the Dude want? What is his engine?
I think it’s fair to say the only thing the Dude really wants is to get his rug back. That, and probably to win the league championship. Maude, Bunny, and The Big Lebowski confuse the Dude [for a time] into thinking he’s interested in money, but really:
… would it be possible for me to get
My twenty grand in cash? I gotta check this
With my accountant of course, but my concern
Is that, you know, it could bump me into a
All that real life stuff is just too much hassle.
5 out of 5 points.
Part C) I define the pinch point as arriving on page 93:
Yeah, my thinking about the case,
Man, it had become uptight. Yeah.
This line of dialogue leads directly to the final confrontation with The Big Lebowski in which Walter tosses him on the floor. This scene is also hysterical. I mean, real, real, funny. Of course, after this confrontation the story widens so we can deal with the nihilists and the death of Donny.
Again, there is a lot of funny writing after the pinch point on 93, but I don’t think there is a coherent sense in which the script funnels toward fade out after the Dude has his “true detective” realization.
1 out of 5 points.
Part D) I’m afraid I won’t be able to manipulate this script so that I can pretend it has my favorite Coen Brothers theme:
Love is impossible.
I feel like the Dude is a character making his second trip through a Coen Brothers film. During Trip One, he learned love is impossible. His life [before his filmed story begins] is one route toward expressing that idea.
Unfortunately [for my critical consistency] because the Dude already knows the truth in my favorite Coen Brothers theme, that can’t be the message in his current story dots. We will have to dig deeper.
Interestingly, I began to prepare for this answer by thinking about the word “cleave”. A long time ago, it entered my consciousness that cleave is a self-antonymous word.
“Cleave” is, as you’ve already discovered, a tricky little word. It’s often cited as an “auto-antonym,” a word which can mean its own opposite, because “cleave” can be used to mean both “to split apart” and “to stick together.” Some such pairs of words (also called “Janus words,” after the Roman god with two faces) are actually the same word with contradictory senses developed over time (e.g., “fast,” moving quickly, and “fast,” securely attached). The two senses of “cleave,” however, are two entirely separate words, with different origins, that just happen to share the same spelling. (1)
I’m sure there is a list of these auto-antonyms somewhere, but I’ve never taken the time to locate it [in spite of the fact that this type of verbal anomaly really fascinates me]. I am bringing this category of anomaly up now because, as I read the script, I couldn’t help thinking my clever friends the Coen Brothers were up to their old tricks. They were playing word games again. And they were doing it with a self-antonymous word… just like cleave. Consider the following fact:
Fact One: The Dude and the Big Lebowski have exactly the same name—Jeffrey Lebowski
And then combine that fact with the following two lines of dialogue:
…By God sir. I will not abide
Yeah man. Well, you know, the Dude
That’s a pretty clear example of using a unique word antonymously, and [quite seriously] I think it was done on purpose.
The Big Lebowski will not tolerate… “another toe”. Is that not a completely ridiculous thing to say? The Brothers are poking fun at The Big Lebowski’s super-serious approach to life. They are saying he [by being so serious] makes a comedy of himself.
On the other hand, the Dude uses the same word to mean that he will heed the Stranger’s advice and “take it easy”. [By the way, had the Brothers REALLY been on their game, they might have had Take It Easy be the Eagles song playing in the Malibu cab just before the Dude’s abrupt ejection by the driver.] The real message in the Dude’s story dots equates with his realization that We Humans Are Comedy, and there is nothing we can do about it other than:
It is hard to believe that this story with its balsa wood structure could force me to give it any credit for theme.
8 out of 10 points.
4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)
Part A) I think making a degenerate, burnout, slacker with a bowling fixation the hero of your abduction/ransom story counts as a unique mixing of two disparate genres. I’m not sure anyone other than the Brothers pulls it off. That HAS TO BE the definition of telling a unique story.
5 out of 5 points.
Part B) Oh god, the writing. You read this as a spec from any unrepped writer [and you get past the opening voice over] you sign that writer immediately. Any of us would.
5 out of 5 points.
5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)
There is no sense in which I want to be like the Dude. I am too committed to my life in our society to hang up my cleats and just abide. However, this story FOR A MERE COMEDY (2) does make me think the Dude could be right.
It’s a feeling which lasts several minutes after each exposure to the film. Then I start thinking about my job, my other responsibilities, the feeling fades, and I remember the Dude is not even close to right.
The Barish resists.
6 out of 10 points.
Total Score: 84
1. Here is the link to the article which houses the quoted paragraph. I was unaware, until reading the article that the cleaves came from different roots. From a purely lexical standpoint, that may be even more fascinating.
2. The capitalized words are a bastardization of Percy’s review of Mary’s book—referenced in other places on this blog.