Without question, The Big Lebowski is the most popular movie the Coen brothers ever made. I’m not talking about box office receipts—Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou had higher domestic grosses—but in terms of ubiquity and fandom, the 1998 stoner comedy has no equal. Louisville, Kentucky hosted its tenth annual Lebowski Fest last year, wherein diehard fans celebrated all things Dude. They quoted lines from the movie, dressed as their favorite characters, and drank more White Russians than they probably should have. What’s missing from the conversation, however, is not how the movie has become an underground pop culture phenomenon, but how The Big Lebowski stacks up as a movie. Quite simply, The Big Lebowski does not belong among the canon of the Coens’ best films, no matter how much the fans and urban achievers protest.
Maybe it’s confirmation bias, but whenever I bring the topic up with friends, I’m invariably met with, “That’s just, like, your opinion, man.” Indeed, repeating your favorite lines is part of the fun, especially when presented with the appropriate context. But there are other Coen comedies, too, and their meticulous consistency is what makes them better films. In terms of full-on kookiness, the introduction of Intolerable Cruelty’s Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy lands better and harder than the introduction of Jesus, the bowling pederast. With a mix of broad and focused diction, the central trio of O Brother, Where Art Thou has more consistent comic chemistry than uneven Lebowski heroes; Donny (Steve Buscemi) amounts to a one-note joke, drilled into the ground by the Coens. Come to think of it, Raising Arizona’s stolen baby is more a useful conceit than Donny is: when Ed (Holly Hunter) sobs with joy, it’s a captivatingly funny character moment. “Shut the fuck up, Donny” is merely a dismissive statement, repeated too much.
I don’t mean to imply that I think The Big Lebowski is a bad movie, or a bad comedy. As Sam Elliott’s character would say, “Far from it.” The Big Lebowski is a good comedy because it features smart lines for stupid characters. The Stranger (Elliott) introduces The Dude (Jeff Bridges) as the laziest man in all of Los Angeles County, but he’s also a quick wit. Other characters don’t reward his jokes—Maude’s (Julianne Moore) “Don’t be fatuous, Jeffrey” is the warmest response he gets—so the audience has an instinctive sympathy for The Dude. Nobody else but the viewers notice the sharp mind at work underneath the fog of weed, vodka, and sunglasses. Walter (John Goodman) is The Dude’s opposite and equal: while Walter’s broad gestures initially define him, it’s the smaller lines (e.g. “You mean beyond pacifism?”) that push him beyond caricature into something unique. And with a tapestry of odd secondary characters, The Big Lebowski ambles along without much fuss.
“Ambles” is the key word here. The weakness of The Big Lebowski—and the reason it does not deserve mention among the Coens’ best—is that it amounts to little more than a well-written shaggy dog story. First and foremost, meticulously tight plotting define the best films by the Coen Brothers. Blood Simple and Fargo, for example, are examples of pure cinematic storytelling, and they deal with the repercussions of murder in an inexorable, brutally logical way. Ardent Lebowski fans like to say the meandering plot and zany asides are deliberate, reflecting The Dude’s abiding nature. I’ve heard other defenses which claim that the movie has an airtight plot, and it’s The Dude’s stoner fog that makes it all appear so hazy. The problem with both theories is that they ignore how the Coens consistently put their characters in a narrative fog, even without the White Russians or pot. Fargo’s Jerry Lundegaard and even No Country’s Llewelyn Moss could not make their way through a dense narrative from the Coens, yet the directors’ command of plot is held to a higher standard than the flawed, imperfect information their characters are given. Put another way, the Coens fall into the trap of the Dude’s laziness in The Big Lebowski, and the Coens are at their best when they’re being very un-Dude.
Look, celebrating The Big Lebowski is not beneath me. Back in 2009 I went to a mini-Lebowski party at my friend’s apartment. In the email chain leading up to the party, I dropped multiple references to lines in the movie, including a couple that are in this article. I know what it is to be a fan, but it is important to separate fandom from analysis. The former can obfuscate the latter, which is a shame since some scrutiny might illuminate the secret of The Big Lebowksi’s unlikely endurance. Our answer is more than a throwaway line, or an annual festival. Say what you like about the tenets of actual criticism, Lebowski fans, at least it’s an ethos.
Alan Zilberman is the film editor of Brightest Young Things, as well as a contributor to Tiny Mix Tapes, Washington City Paper, and The Atlantic. Follow him on Twitter here.