How I learned to abide — and love — “The Big Lebowski”
Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Sam Elliott, Peter Stormare, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reid and John Turturro. Written by Ethan and Joel Coen. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Streaming on Starz and YouTube. 117 min. 14A
The Big Lebowski
“Dad, I thought you liked ‘The Big Lebowski,’ “ my daughter Emily said to me at breakfast.
“I do,” I replied. “In fact, I love it.”
“That’s not what Wikipedia says. It says you hate it.”
Sure enough, I checked "The Big Lebowski" page at Wikipedia, which has since been updated. It was a reminder of how in the age of the internet, everything you write lives forever, no matter how dumb it is.
My guilty past had caught up with me: I had panned the Coen Bros. film after attending its world premiere in January 1998 at the Sundance Film Festival.
“It’s hard to believe that this is the work of a team that won an Oscar last year for the original screenplay of 'Fargo,' ” I wrote.
Maybe it was festival fatigue, or a malfunctioning funny bone. Maybe it was oxygen deprivation, since Sundance takes place high above sea level in the Wasatch Mountain range.
But I think the real reason for my bad call on this mistaken-identity comedy, in which a White Russian-scarfing Jeff Bridges hilariously abides as the bowling-obsessed Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, was due to the classic error of false expectations.
I had been hoping the Coens would deliver another off-beat murder thriller like “Fargo,” which I loved, instead of an offbeat comedy like “The Big Lebowski,” which I obviously had trouble warming to.
I wasn’t the only critic to pan at first sight. Wikipedia also quotes Dave Kehr, whose Daily News review slammed “The Big Lebowski” as a “tired idea, and it produces an episodic, unstrung film.” An unnamed writer in Britain’s The Guardian, meanwhile, called the film “a bunch of ideas shoveled into a bag and allowed to spill out at random.”
We were all wrong, as any sensible movie lover will tell you.
What Wikipedia doesn’t include is the second review I wrote a few weeks later, following a second screening of “The Big Lebowski,” in which I almost completely reversed my opinion.
I admitted how wrong I had been at Sundance, calling it “a rare example of a movie where following the detours is a better trip than attempting to take the main road.”
In the intervening years, I’ve grown even fonder of “The Big Lebowski” and its menagerie of characters, who include John Goodman and Steven Buscemi as The Dude’s idiot sidekicks, Julianne Moore as a wild “vaginal artist” and deep-voiced Sam Elliott as a mysterious cowboy sage and narrator.
The things I considered flaws upon first encounter, namely the episodic plot and the out-there eccentricities of the characters, are now what I consider to be the chief virtues of “The Big Lebowski.”
In fact, it may just be my favourite Coen Bros. film, and I’m generally a fan of the Coens. It’s certainly the one I most wish they’d make a sequel to, even though I know they abhor sequels.
While this is an extreme example of mind-changing, it’s not unusual for me or other critics to shift their opinions on a movie we’ve first seen at a film festival. The meat-grinder aspect of such events makes it hard to properly process upwards of four to six screenings daily.
That’s why I try, whenever possible, to see films for a second time before writing the review of record, especially if the first viewing was at a film festival many months previously.
And there’s nothing wrong with critics changing their minds, as long as they do so honestly and openly. What makes it difficult in today’s hothouse online environment is that rushed first opinions are printed in the Internet’s permanent ink, forever remaining to cause potential embarrassment.
I was lucky back in 1998 that bloggers and tweeters didn’t yet exist, to immediately bay for my blood. And movie critics back then generally confined themselves to reviewing movies rather than each other, which sadly isn’t the case today.
They used to say in the news business that today’s news is tomorrow’s fish wrap. That maxim no longer applies, as anyone who writes in public learns to their peril.
But fortunately, Wikipedia allows for the record to be corrected. So I’m going to have to contact this 21st century oracle and make the case that yes, I was wrong about “The Big Lebowski,” but I later saw the light. (UPDATE: I did just that, and all is cool with Wiki.)
Meanwhile, anybody for a White Russian, a game of bowling and a viewing of “The Big Lebowski”?
(This originally ran in the Toronto Star on July 7, 2011.)