Joel Coen’s The Big Lebowski (1998) exhibits an unusual strand of comic excellence. It’s part of the 90s emergence of film noir/ comedy, with Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993), Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), and Coen’s own Fargo (1996) among its precursors. These films exist within a cinematic universe wherein criminality is distinguished with moments of high art cinematography and a consciousness of the spectacular, ridiculous nature of the fiction on screen. Where The Big Lebowski particularly succeeds is with its playful exaggeration, sensationalising its own hilarity with a nod to film noir and its own parodied version of its genre. Comedy definitely isn’t realism, though it often presents itself as such, with Jeff Bridge’s ‘The Dude’ as the ultimate, recognisable slacker.
“what are you talking about?”
It’s a question Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski (Bridges) constantly asks Walter Sobochak (John Goodman), or whoever he is with, and one the audience asks too. With a consciously comic strategy, aligning a character’s confusion with the audience’s, Bridges’ character interacts with the audience in a way that is unusual in comedy. The Dude almost breaks the fourth wall yet doesn’t commit to such a generic convention. Rather, he speaks for us, not to us. Instead of looking out at his audience, reminding them of the often forgotten yet glaringly obvious aspect that they are watching a film, The Dude seems to acknowledge the film’s chaos in a way that obscures conventional comedy. He is more than a vehicle by which the comedy measures against his own reaction, and in turn, our own. The Big Lebowski‘s comic success acknowledges The Dude’s specific position as an outsider and spectator, visually and charismatically, as he peers inside a world of criminality.
Becoming more than the protagonist for his centrality to the plot, The Dude as a slacker is vital to the comic integrity of the film. Hilariously and famously underdressed in a robe and jelly sandals, the gag of the film is that Bridges’ character seems to deliberately embody someone who looks as though they’ve accidentally wandered onto the set of the film’s production.
Elements of accident and chance shape the film’s narrative and character arcs and add to the hilarity. With accident as its premise, the plot itself revolves around the hazardous confusion between Bridges’ character and another, far more affluent Jeff Lebowski. The Big Lebowski envisions a style of comedy that isn’t insular and self-contained, but one that flows off-screen with an unruliness that feels faultlessly improvised and hilariously unending and accidental.
This produced spontaneity is definitely not a criticism of the Coen brother’s expert story-writing, rather a seemingly impossible accomplishment within a genre of films that are so often garishly constructed and unbelievable.
The unbelievable aspect of The Big Lebowski isn’t the slacker and his spectatorship comedy, it’s the criminal world he completely juxtaposes yet finds himself inhabiting.