Jeet Heer, who usually writes about politics, today praised a movie that was horribly underrated when it came out 20 years ago this week:
The shifting critical fortunes of The Big Lebowski are legendary. Roger Ebert initially gave the movie a mixed review because of its ramshackle plot, which “rushes in all directions and never ends up anywhere.” In 2010, he upgraded The Big Lebowski to the status of a “great” movie. Denby also changed his mind, according to a recent Washington Post survey of critics who initially panned the movie. Others either haven’t revisited it or are still put off by it. Daphne Merkin, in her original New Yorker review, said the movie was “drenched in knowingness” and lacked a “narrative structure.” She likes the movie slightly more now, but not by much. “I think it is a quintessential insider movie, one that plays in this shrewd way to groupthink,” Merkin told the Post. “You’re either in on it, or you’re not in on it.” But even Merkin allowed that “the dude and his disconnected dudeness has a certain appeal now, maybe because the world has grown more horrendous or reality is less bearable than when the film was made.”
The Big Lebowski is a grower because the plot is less important than the characters. At the heart of the movie is the improbable friendship of the near-pacifist Dude and the violence-prone Walter. The zinging banter between the two characters is really a battle of philosophies. The Dude (one of the authors of the original Port Huron Statement, “not the compromised second draft”) embodies the spirit of the 1960s counterculture, weatherworn by the 1990s but still wily and subversive; Walter is a knee-jerk hawk, always escalating conflict, often with disastrous results. But to enjoy the movie you have to get to know the two characters and appreciate the nuances of their friendship, which is easier after multiple viewings. The dialogue also becomes richer, as you notice how the characters have distinctive lingos which the Dude, with his sponge mind, absorbs and echoes.
The Big Lebowski is a masterpiece of world-building, but to enjoy it you have to be willing to enter its world on its own terms. Few were willing to do that in 1998. But today, thanks in part to the Coen brothers’ oeuvre, it doesn’t seem so strange anymore.
What else can we say? The Dude abides.