I watched The Big Lebowski last night. It is a film that grows on you. I know that it suffered at the time of its release because it came right after Fargo, and everyone wanted to see Fargo II. But there are more important reasons to not like the film. Most notable is that it just seems loose—like they really needed another run at the screenplay.
It makes me happy that the the Coen Brothers don’t discuss what their films are about. For example, when asked what the ending of Barton Fink meant, one of them said something to the effect that the lead character was sitting on a beach (from the painting in his room) with a woman’s head in a box. And that is probably as much as they know. The truth is, that like most great art, Barton Fink just works and it is kind of hard to say exactly why. But the fact that the Coen Brothers don’t try to say any more than is up on the screen (note the lack of “director’s commentaries” for their films) allows people like me to say whatever we want.
The Big Lebowski is far more obvious than Barton Fink. The tumbleweed is the perfect symbol for The Dude. And bowling is the perfect game: the pins just set there waiting for the bowler who doesn’t even need to throw the ball because the lane is downhill. Other than The Dude (and perhaps Donny—the biggest problem with the script), all of the characters in the film play parts. This is seen in The Big Lebowski himself, who is every bit the leach he castigates The Dude for being; and Walter, whose status as Vietnam vet, Jew, and intellectual, are all questionable; and The Stranger, who is some kind of Hollywood cowboy monstrosity. The Dude, despite having many annoying character traits, is likable because he is authentic. What you see is all there is.
William Goldman complained in Which Lie Did I Tell, that The Big Lebowski did not work because there was no final bowling tournament. This badly misunderstands the intent of the film. Just the same, the Coen Brothers seem somewhat confused on this point. All the talk about the bowling tournament is not leading anywhere, they clearly understand this. But The Dude’s investigation of the kidnapping of Bunny Lebowski is also not leading anywhere. Yet, they feel the need to resolve it without really resolving it. We learn that The Big Lebowski was just scamming the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers out of a million bucks and framing The Dude for it. We learn this 20 minutes from the end of the film. But this remaining time is not used to tie up the large number of loose ends. We don’t learn what becomes of the Lebowski’s relationship, or the PI sent to retrieve Bunny, or if Maude Lebowski will get her father to return the million dollars he stole. We don’t learn any of this and much more because the film is no more interested in that than it is in what happens in the bowling tournament.
Instead, the film meanders on for another 20 minutes about what it had been meandering on about for the first 100 minutes: The Dude abiding. A tumbleweed tumbles on, despite strange men urinating on your carpet, rich men framing you, and friends dying. “Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.”
The Dude abides.