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+