All of a sudden, it’s hip to be noir. L.A. Confidential, Curtis Hanson’s tough-minded homage to the most influential American film genre of the ’40s, was the best-reviewed movie of 1997; Robert Polito, author of a prize-winning biography of pulp novelist Jim Thompson, edited a two-volume anthology of crime fiction published last year by the Library of America, whose dust jackets declare it to be in the business of “preserving America’s best and most significant writing.” Jazz has become modestly fashionable once more, and though men seem unlikely to resume wearing hats, cigarettes even appear to be undergoing a revival of sorts. Meanwhile, Joel and Ethan Coen, whose affection for film noir has been evident ever since the release in 1984 of their first movie, Blood Simple, are back again with The Big Lebowski, a chokingly funny Raymond Chandler parody whose timing, both comic and commercial, is just about perfect.
The premise of The Big Lebowski is so ingenious as to be all but unspoilable: It’s a cross between The Big Sleep and Dazed and Confused. Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), a former SDS member who spent his undergraduate days occupying administration buildings and smoking dope by the kilo (his sole achievement in life is to have helped write “the original Port Huron Statement—not the compromised second draft”), has renounced his dreams of revolution and retired to Los Angeles, the paradise of sloth and disillusion, where he draws unemployment, slurps down White Russians more or less continuously, and hangs out at the neighborhood bowling alley with his foul-mouthed friends. But someone has been telling lies about the Dude, for one fine day a pair of hired thugs, mistaking him for a self-made millionaire of the same name, smash up his apartment and urinate on his rug; he thereupon seeks out “the big Lebowski” (David Huddleston) for a chat and promptly finds himself swept up in a kidnapping. What follows is straight out of Chandler—the wheelchair-bound client, the blond trophy wife, the sex-crazed daughter, the rich pornographer, the impossibly complex plot whose various elements never quite mesh—except that Philip Marlowe, the sardonic knight errant of The Big Sleep, has been replaced by the Dude, an unfailingly amiable slacker who reacts to the chaos swirling around him with a combination of befuddlement and good humor, pushing his remaining brain cells to the limit as he endeavors to puzzle out who did what to whom.
Though much of the fun in The Big Lebowski comes from the skill with which the Coens set up and knock down one film-noir cliché after another, it is Jeff Bridges who lights a fire under their cleverness, turning what could easily have been a one-track spoof into two hours’ worth of inspired clowning. (It’s worth the price of admission just to see him try to focus his bleary eyes on the faxed ransom note.) The key to his performance is its geniality: The Dude may be burnt-out, but somewhere inside the mental fog bank that surrounds him’ is a genuinely nice person who wants to do the right thing, so long as it doesn’t keep him from getting to the bowling alley on time. Bridges has never quite been accepted as a star by the moviegoing public, no doubt because of the deceptively casual way in which he goes about his business; if The Fabulous Baker Boys didn’t make him a household name, The Big Lebowski probably won’t, either. But it ought to, for he ranks with Kevin Spacey as one of the preeminent character actors of his generation, and this film proves it yet again.
Bridges’s zany performance goes a long way toward offsetting the coldness of the Coen brothers, whose witty movies crackle with ill-concealed distaste for the irredeemable banality of American mass culture. Even Fargo, the first of their seven films to appeal to a popular audience—and the only one to suggest a certain grudging respect for the traditional values it portrays—took a decidedly dim view of life in small-town Minnesota. It’s surely no coincidence that the Dude, who is alienated to the point of paralysis, is also the only person in The Big Lebowski for whom we are meant to feel anything more than amused scorn. Far more representative of the Coens’ now-familiar stock company of blithering idiots is Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), the Dude’s bowling partner, a pistol-packing Vietnam vet whose impenetrable stupidity is matched only by his unshakable conviction that he knows the one best way to do everything. Leave it to the Coens to make a joke out of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Scorn is the gunpowder of satire, and The Big Lebowski is so keenly observed that it’s tempting to treat it as a serious critique of the moral emptiness of American life (especially given the fact, heavily underlined in the script, that the film takes place at the same time as Operation Desert Storm, a once-admired undertaking whose utter ineffectiveness has become painfully clear in retrospect). It helps that there’s so much to satirize in the apathetic lifestyles of such hapless members of the contemporary lumpenproletariat as Walter and the Dude, not to mention the latter-day cult of noir: both phenomena, after all, are expressions of the homegrown quasi-nihilism that is fully as intrinsic to the American national character as the Puritan work ethic that is its inversion.
But noir, for all its tiresome affectations, really does pose a challenging ethical question: How can a man conduct himself with honor in a radically corrupted society? This is the whole point of Raymond Chandler’s novels, The Big Sleep very much included; Philip Marlowe may talk in wisecracks, but there is nothing frivolous about the way he struggles to preserve his integrity in the face of temptation. Neither are the unhappy children of the ’60s wholly deserving of our contempt. Though they made desperate messes of their lives, their foolishness arose from genuine idealism, however misbegotten, and if they failed to appreciate the values of the society they proposed to dismantle in the name of peace, love, and understanding, it was in no small part because their parents, worn down by the Great Depression and World War II, proved unwilling to defend those values when push came once again to shove.
As for Joel and Ethan Coen, it turns out that they, too, are nihilists, albeit in the postmodern manner: believing in nothing, they find everything funny. This is why their wonderfully stylish movies so rarely engage the emotions (Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing are exceptions), and thus lack the dangerous edge of real satire. Satire occurs when scorn is ignited by passion, a commodity rarely found in the work of the Coens, who prefer Gen-X cool to baby-boom angst; the last thing they’d want is to be caught feeling something intensely. “He’s a nihilist,” Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) says of one of the heavies in The Big Lebowski, to which the Dude cheerfully replies, “Oh, that must be exhausting.” Indeed it is, and the Coens, like the Dude, are too tired to do anything but poke wicked but ultimately pointless fun at the morally null world in which they live: True postmodernists, they look into the abyss and laugh.