Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Big Lebowski and Comedy Without Laughs

It dawned on me the other night as I sat down to watch The Big Lebowski for the first time that the Coen brothers are a filmmaking pair whose films I take on a case by case basis. For every Fargo or No Country for Old Men (a rare instance of the Academy honouring a filmmaker for what is their best work) there is a Miller's Crossing or an A Serious Man. You won't see me getting in a fanboy tizzy over these guys, despite guaranteeing that I'll see whatever they put out. Having never seen their stoner flick The Big Lebowski, despite the years and years of praise heaped upon it, I certainly knew better than to just assume I would like it.

A curious thought occurred to me after watching it and that was that I had barely laughed once and yet I didn't think it was necessarily a bad movie. For a comedy, this seemed like a confusing prospect. Isn't the main aim of a comedy to make an audience laugh? Isn't it? I have no doubt that countless viewers have been brought to riotous fits of laughter due to The Big Lebowski, but I did not. And yet, I didn't think it was a bad film.

But, here I am, debating whether I should think it's a good film without laughter. Much like one can admire a stand up comedian's bravura and ability to craft a long-form comedy show with the ebbs and flows, but if they don't bring the preverbial LOLs then you're not going to recommend it, are you? All the cult merchandise can't convince me that I was simply not in the right mood, but that I in fact just didn't much of it particularly funny. Take last year's Easy A as a counter example; a deeply problematic film that still succeeded in sending me into fits of laughter. Easily more forgivable, I say.

All of the laughs I got from The Big Lebowski - chuckles, more like it - were based on the physical mannerisms that Jeff Bridges gave to his character of "The Dude" and the way Julianne Moore nestled her accented superfluous character into the film's framework. I didn't laugh at the stoner fantasy sequences, although I found them nicely done, nor did I find any of the oft-quoted lines to be all that hilarious. But, then again, I usually do find myself preferring to find humour in the way an actor delivers a line rather than the line itself. It's fascinating to witness an actor throw the most minor of vocal inflections into a line of perhaps otherwise unspectacular dialogue and turn it into something memorable. It's this very reason that my favourite scene of all was the one shared between Bridges, Moore and David Thewlis, since it's more about character creation and intriguing actor work than anything relating to "the dude abides."

I did find the film quite well made and there's no doubt that Joel and an uncredited Ethan Coen certainly have a way with casting (via casting director John S Lyons, obviously). They get a goldmine of a performance out of Jeff Bridges, plus fine work by Julianne Moore, John Goodman (doing just enough to keep his repetitive dialogue from becoming too stale) and a stuffed supporting cast. The screenplay has a nicely snowballing, surprising structure and keen running gags, plus the technical behind the scenes efforts are all classy with particular note going to the production design by Rick Heinrichs and Mary Zophres' specific costume design.

And yet here I am coming back to my initial quandary regarding the film. The Big Lebowski is first and foremost a comedy and yet there I sat not so much laughing as merely modestly admiring it. Is The Big Lebowski then a failure, despite it's other respectable qualities, because I didn't laugh? That's it's ostensibly a stoner flick and I was stone cold sober doesn't mean a thing since I've been in that situation before and not had it be a problem (Smiley Face, anyone?) Even then, though, do a couple of fantasy sequences and some characters smoking pot really make it a stoner movie? Much of the movie is fairly straightforward, I think.

I don't think it's fair to say The Big Lebowski failed in it's primary goal since the Coen brothers are never just "we tell joke! you laugh!" filmmakers, but all the fantastic Jeff Bridges performances in the world can't really shake the feeling that without the laughs something was deeply missing. Like watching a musical without any good music, I guess. Let's slice it down the middle and call it a C+


Jaime Grijalba said...

I'd say that I felt exactly the same, I didn't laugh out loud, I did chuckle, but I still admire it enormously because it's more like a well told ironic nihilistic story than a comedy, for me at least. It doesn't even work as a stoner comedy or flick, since that element is a small part of the film itself.
I went with a A-, as I took it as I saw it, not as they sold it to me.

JA said...

I was really indifferent to The Big Lebowski when I saw it when it came out. I've only seen it the one time, and this cult grew up around it since then and I've dreaded going back to watch it since I love the Coens pretty much 95% of the time and am afraid I still just won't get the love. So I still haven't seen it again. I'm gonna have to force myself some time.

Glenn Dunks said...

Jason, let's watch it together! Except we'd probably go to put it on and decide on something better. Like Altered States.

MD said...

The laughter thing is interesting when you think about comedies. If you went purely on laughter as a way to measure quality in a comedy, then most people would hold the broadest and most appealing comedies to be the best. And, of course, everyone has different taste in comedy. It's the same with horror movies. Some people won't be scared by any supernatural films, and some of us are shaken by the worst of them.

As I said on Twitter, I don't find much to laugh at in Lebowski. I think Moore is perfect casting, and Bridges and Goodman have moments of genius too.

Apart from that, a lot of its elements don't really click for me. I appreciate the pastiche elements of the script, but I don't think it builds to anything in particular. That may be my biggest problem with the film; it seems to hum along for most of its running time without doing anything in particular, and without wanting to, either. You could probably make a case for the film being like this because the Dude is the character we stay with, but I can't fully buy into that.

And this is just personal taste, obviously, but most of the situations with Walter feel awkward to me, and not in a comedic way. I do love Buscemi's repeated "I Am The Walrus," though. And I can never get enough of Julianne's strongly vaginal artwork. ;)

It may be another case of something being overhyped and damaging my enjoyment. It's the sort of movie I can appreciate for certain craft elements and for how weird it gets, but it still doesn't do anything for me.

(I can also probably find some love for that soundtrack)

JA said...

Oh yes there will be much better things for us to watch! If we're gonna watch a movie together in real life we'll have to go all fucking out and watch something awesome. It'll have to be Showgirls or Scream or some shit like that.

Glenn Dunks said...

MD, yes I liked the soundtrack too.

I think there's a balance between judging a comedy based on how much I laugh/how much enjoyment I get (simply making me grin from ear to ear can make a film worthwhile) and how well-crafted and made it is. I don't need to laugh constantly throughout to think a comedy is great, especially since some of the best comedies are the subtle ones that don't go for the big gut laughs right out of the gate, but when a film fails to raise so much as a brief chuckle once or twice and leaves me nonplussed?

Jason, oh yes. It'd be glorious. I'm sure there's a movie that perfectly blends Showgirls with Scream, yeah?

NicksFlickPicks said...

Hear, hear, Glenn! I'm totally with you. I tried a second time, about five or six years after the first, and I liked the good parts just as much (and Bridges better) but I'm still utterly baffled by the film and its cult-favorite status. Long stretches of it annoy me, and others just play as dull.

Rich said...

I know we've chatted a little on Twitter about this but I wanted to leave a longer comment as I feel there are a few interesting issues raised by your piece.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that The Big Lebowski is one of my favorite films and in my opinion is as near to a perfect film as they come. The shaggy nature of this pitch perfect homage to Raymond Chandler stories comes full circle in such a perfect way that I find not a moment wasted.

In regards to your question of whether a comedy needs to elicit laughter in order to be successful I think it comes down to how one defines a comedy (and to a greater extent how one deems what makes a film successful). I can definitively say that a comedy that makes me laugh is not by definition a good film. Many bad films have made me laugh (and vice versa). It is a pretty narrow definition to simply say if a comedy doesnt make you laugh it is a failure. Comedy itself is a much more multifaceted genre than merely aiming for belly-laughs.

I was quite interested in how your viewing went considering it was a first watch of a film that has been pretty eaten up by pop culture over the last decade. It makes it hard to watch with no preconcieved notions. You made the reference to Citizen Kane on Twitter which was pretty apt. Pulp Fiction would be another film that would be hard to watch for the first time nowadays too.

To end this rambling rant, I'll just say that, no, I don't think laughter is a requirement for a comedy to be successful and while I'm sorry you didn't find it 'funny', I so think there is plenty more than 'jokes' in The Big Lebowski to make it worthwhile.

Glenn Dunks said...

Nick, did you find that - like me - once the snowballing plot finally took grip in the second half it got better? That's what I thought and I kinda wished the whole movie had been that tightly focused rather spattering about on things like John Turturro's character and so forth.

Rich, thanks for the lengthy response. Always good to elicit stuff like that from people. I admit that I've laughed a helluva lot more at plenty of films far more dodgy than The Big Lebowski, but even though Lebowski may prove to have been more intellectually involving, I've lately found myself preferring the mindless laughs of, say, Bad Teacher. I guess I figure it's harder to actually make me laugh for 90 minutes than it is anything else.

Now, if there were more films that I found as equally hilarious and intellectually stimulating then I'd be right on board. You obviously got that out of Lebowski, but I didn't.

But, you're right about the topic I raised on Twitter of films reputations being brought over into the film viewing process. There's no denying that The Big Lebowski carries with it the weight of being hailed as a hilarious comic classic, which surely doesn't help when one doesn't find it particularly funny.

Rich said...

It's weird as you get older and you see people discovering films that were definitive to you in your youth. I remember seeing The Big Lebowski on it's general release back in 1998 at the Nova. It wasn't that highly regarded on its initial release. Coming immediately after the Coen's made FARGO, many critics and audience members wrote it off.

I loved it immediately and returned to it frequently over the years although I will admit I struggled with its growing cult status (I get a bit reactionary to things that attain a level of mainstream popularity). To be honest I didn't even realise to this day that it had a reputation of being a 'hilarious comedy'. But that is more a case of me keeping my head in the sand regarding its general popularity than anything else.

Anonymous said...

Ami I understanding right that you are no fan of Miller's Crossing or their masterpiece, A Serious Man? Both fine films as are Fargo and No Country for Old Men. The Big Lebowski is also one of their best but it's no more a comedy than Fargo is. IMHO, A Serious Man is their very best film to date and towers over the others. Very ambitious and succeeds on every level.

Anonymous said...

The mistake you made is in assuming that The Big Lebowski is a comedy.

I wouldn't call it such.

I've watched the movie probably a hundred times (not an exaggeration) and I still can't pigeon hole it as a particular genre of film. The strength of the movie is the fascinating characters.

It is what it is.
Abide !

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