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The Awkward Movie Challenge: The Big Lebowski

July 28, 2010 By: and Category: Greatest Hits, The Awkward Movie Challenge


According to Netflix, Mike and Jeffrey agree with each other on movies 84% of the time. In their ongoing feature, The Awkward Movie Challenge, they search valiantly for that sweet 16% that results in big arguments and big laughs.


Most of the time, I couldn’t care less about sitting outside of pop culture obsessions. I have no more desire to understand the appeal of Twilight or Lady Gaga or “American Idol” or sports than I care to understand the appeal of sticking a chopstick in ones peehole. But there are a few beloved pop items that really irk me because I don’t get them. One is Some Like It Hot, which has so much going for it—Billy Wilder and Jack Lemon and Marilyn Monroe and a reputation as the greatest comedy ever made—but never fails to bore me. Another is The Big Lebowski.

The Big Lebowski (1998) stars Jeff Bridges as Jeff Lebowski, aka: The Dude, a middle-aged hippie stoner who wants nothing more than to bowl with his crazy Vietnam Vet buddy Walter (John Goodman) but gets caught up in a scheme to deliver ransom money to the kidnappers of the wife (Tara Reid) of a millionaire (David Huddleston), also named Jeffrey Lebowski. Being that this is a movie by Joel and Ethan Coen, greed inevitably fouls the plan when Walter decides that he and The Dude should keep the ransom money for themselves.

When I first saw The Big Lebowski I was shocked that the Coen Brothers chose to follow up a film as masterful and hilarious as Fargo with one that struck me as flimsy and directionless. I was even more shocked to discover that The Big Lebowski had attracted a cult following with greater potency than any other Coen Brothers movie. Fans throw an annual “Lebowski Fest” in which they dress up as their favorite characters, bowl, drink, and presumably, watch the movie. There are Big Lebowski drinking games and a line of Big Lebowski toys.

The merchandise abides.

Part of me wishes I could partake in all this Lebowski love. The Coen Brothers have made some of my favorite movies, including Blood Simple, Barton Fink, and Fargo. I don’t have as strong a personal zeal for Miller’s Crossing, The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country for Old Men, or A Serious Man, but I definitely consider them to be great movies. The Lebowski cast is top-notch right down the line: Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, John Goodman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Tara Reid… The ‘Tara Reid’ part was a joke. An unfunny joke, but one that makes me laugh as hard as any in The Big Lebowski, which brings me to my first problem with the movie.

Tara Reid: Not even funny as a punchline.

The Coens are clearly funny guys, but their humor is so naturally broad that their pure comedies tend to collapse beneath its weight. The comedic elements of Fargo and Barton Fink are balanced with grave atmospheres and well-developed characters. And as great as those films are, some of the humor still feels like a step over the border: the overdone Midwestern accents in Fargo or Barton’s silly dance at a ball, for example. When the Coens make films that play exclusively for laughs with characters that are no more than cartoons, their comedies can turn shrill. Take Raising Arizona, a fan favorite I always think I like more than I actually do. Holly Hunter’s performance is so over the top that it negates the resonance of her characters’ overwhelming desire for a baby. But I don’t blame Hunter, who has been subtle in other pictures. Her blubbering jag after Nicholas Cage presents her with a baby bares the big, broad stamp of the Coens’ direction. It belongs in the same drawer as Brad Pitt’s embarrassing scenery chewing in Burn After Reading. John Goodman’s non-stop screaming belongs in the same drawer as a punch in the face.

John Goodman sez: "Ahhhhhhhhhhh!!!"

The Big Lebowski is not quite as shrill as Raising Arizona or Burn After Reading, but it is as cartoonish. I like Jeff Bridges, but I don’t care about The Dude. This may be the key factor that sets me apart from Lebowski cultists. To me he’s just a generic stoner guy with a few distinguishing quirks, like his love for white Russians (although, I can really get behind his hatred of The Eagles. Amen, Dude, amen). I also dislike the revolving structure of the picture: each segment begins in Lebowski’s apartment, moves into the world, and finishes off in the bowling alley. I get that this repetition is in keeping with the Coens’ belief in the inescapable nature of bad fate, but it makes the movie feel stuck in gear even as it feels rambling because the plot seems little more than a device to hang dopey characters and dumb dream sequences on. Too often the Coens take the easy route in drawing laughs from silly names, silly costumes, lazy irony, lazy sex jokes, and exaggerated accents. The prime embodiment of all these gripes is John Turturro’s Jesus Quintana, a pedophile who does a goofy dance to a Spanish version of “Hotel California” while wearing a purple jumpsuit and a hairnet and wagging his tongue at his bowling ball. It’s as ham fisted as it sounds and about as funny.

But, of course, I’m in the minority here. Somewhere a Lebowski Head is reading this review and plotting my bloody, bloody, bloody murder. Fortunately, that person will most likely opt to get stoned and watch The Big Lebowski for the 300th time instead.

Mike gives The Big Lebowski… Twenty-Two Turturro Tongues!

Let the hate mail commence…

Next page: …but first, some contrary words of praise from Dude Jeffrey Dinsmore…

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14 Comments to “The Awkward Movie Challenge: The Big Lebowski”

  1. Conflict of interest: my nephew Elliot has started doing art direction for the Cohens and likes them slot I’ve only seen the wonderful Fargo.

  2. I’m floored you don’t like this, Mike. This is one of my favorite comedies of the 90′s. That said, this is indeed a je ne sais quoi thing.

  3. Well, I’m glad that both you and Jeffrey agree that the movie is basically a “you get it or you don’t” kind of thing and that there isn’t some magic key to its brilliance that is simply over my head. At the same time, I still kind of wish I could be one of those goofballs in the sunglasses and cardigans, because it’s probably going to be a long time before I’ll be able to wear my Dan Hedaya suit at ‘Blood Simple Fest’.

  4. Goodman’s performance was Oscar-worthy.

  5. I’m with Mike. Most of my friends down here are Labowski nuts, and that fact makes me take their movie reviews with a grain hotty salt. I, too, saw this in the theater, and was utterly underwhelmed. I rewatched it recently to see if my opinion changed, and found a couple lines moderately amusing. I MAY have even laughed once. But I really can’t get how people love this movie.

    • Is there some hyperbole in that, though? Or would you really question a friend’s taste based on a difference in one movie? I feel like I have people whose opinions I respect (my friends, certain critics) and people whose opinions I don’t respect (Sarah Palin). That’s more of the dividing line for me. And if I disagree with Segretto, say, on one movie, it makes me curious to know what he sees in the movie and I don’t … it doesn’t make me question his ability to watch a movie and evaluate it according to what he’s demonstrated time and again to be a knowledgeable and open perspective. Especially with “The Big Lebowski” … if you know the Coens are masterful filmmakers … and I would hope no one would disagree with that assessment … AND that this film in particular has a gigantic cult … is there not a point where you think, “hmm, maybe I should give my friends & the rest of the world the benefit of the doubt on this one”?

      To me, it’s a pretty important personality test. I prefer to think, “that movie is not for me,” than “that movie is not good.” I mean, unless it’s “Rachel Getting Married,” which we can all agree is a terrible movie. I just personally don’t have that kind of unwavering confidence in my opinion. And there are a lot of great movies that just haven’t hit me the right way on the first or even second viewing – Magnolia, for example. My favorite records are often albums that don’t jump out at me at first, but reveal their secrets over time. So I have a hard time ever saying, “Final verdict: bad movie.”

      There are even movies that I hold out judgment on, imagining I will eventually figure it out. “There Will Be Blood,” for example. (What is it with P.T. Anderson?) I didn’t like it. I’ve seen it twice, and I had problems with it each time. But so many people whose opinions I respect like it, that I assume it just hasn’t crept under my skin yet the way it should. I like it by proxy.

      Maybe that’s a wishy-washy way of viewing art. But I think the whole reason I watch movies and listen to music is to have that moment of connection with the other people who are listening to and watching the same things … even when we disagree, art is the lens through which I can get a greater understanding of how other people see the world. So I can see how it’s mildly irritating when I feel one way and my friend feels another, but I think that’s a great catalyst for a discussion of how we think the way we do, in the ultimate quest to reach a greater understanding. No question, agreement creates a nice feeling of connection. But reaching understanding in disagreement often feels more rewarding.

  6. 1) I love phone autocorrect typos. I think I meant “of” when my phone decided I was saying “hotty,” but I don’t know how it made that jump.

    2) Honestly… if you find The Big Lebowski hilarious, your sense of humor works in a very different way than mine does, so your “this is hilarious” advice goes through a filter that someone who doesn’t think “The Big Lebowski is hilarious” isn’t subjected to. I doubt I really use that filter to weight their reviews much, but it’s more that, when I see something else they think is hilarious and can’t see any humor in it or at most a little, I’m not surprised (recent example: being introduced to “Look Around You,” which that group likes almost as much as bowling and making The Dude references, and yet I couldn’t see anything even vaguely funny about).

    It’s been driving me crazy, though. There have been so many movies that people have strong reactions about, that I can’t understand how someone could have a strong reaction. “Lost in Translation” was a big one on that scale. That was an utterly and completely ok movie. It wasn’t great, and it wasn’t terrible, and I couldn’t see how anyone could put it on either of those extremes… but I’d been told time and again that I’d either love it or hate it. How? And then there’s “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men,” two movies I found utterly unenjoyable which so many people loved. I’m still convinced those got their reputations purely through powerful marketing and I somehow missed that campaign, because I can’t see how actually watching them without already having your mind made up that you like them could switch you to that setting.

    My feelings on the opinions people have about those three movies are much stronger than my feelings about The Big Lebowski, but it’s in the same vein. I just don’t get how people can care so much about such a solidly “ok” movie.

  7. Oh, and btw… I made friends watch LA Story, one of the greatest comedies of all time… and they thought it was meh. I know it’s not just Other People who like movies that some people can’t see the same beauty in. It’s just strange to me that TBL gets so many people that way.

  8. There have definitely been movies that I’ve changed my mind about. Beetlejuice was a prime example of that. I thought it was mediocre the first time I saw it, but I swear it’s funnier with each viewing.

    That’s why I gave TBL another chance; I hoped it’d Beetlejuice me. But it was still just mediocre.

    • Holy crap, somehow I never noticed you guys have threaded replies, even though you use them. Will be better about that going forward :)

  9. just finished watching it again. well, no, not really, i gave up after they smash that red sports car. it’s just agonizing, such a boring, unfunny movie. I really do not understand the appeal. And – Coen brothers are easily my favorite filmmakers. Oh Brother, Fargo, No Country, Raising Arizona, Hudsucker, Burn After Reading, Blood Simple, Intolerable Cruelty… just so many brilliant, brilliant films. But Lebowsky just does not gel, it falls flat. I tried, man… I tried.

  10. You had me until “Intolerable Cruelty.”

  11. It’s a dialogue movie, and you get it or you don’t. Its not totally unclever (the vladimir lenin part is pretty funny). oh well, to each his own