It’s too easy to spill ink waxing about the ways in which Coen brothers’ “The Big Lebowski” has embedded itself in our culture.
The film, which was released 20 years ago this week, is no average cult flick showing at midnight at your local art house theater.
Though the movie was not a huge box-office success, it has since spawned a pseudo-religion, Dudeism, with more than 450,000 “ordained priests;” annual festivals around the country where thousands of costume-clad fans gather to celebrate the film and all its obscure moments; books and academic treatments; White Russian competitions, and legions of fans so fervent that they inspired a film of their own, the documentary, “The Achievers.”
But there is a small group of people who were not impressed with the film, at least when it came out: Many critics were quick to dismiss it as self-indulgent and chaotic. (The Washington Post’s Desson Howe was not one of them — “the Coens have defined and mastered their own bizarre subgenre,” he wrote in his 1998 review, but The Post’s current critic Ann Hornaday has been less impressed).
We took a look at some of the more negative reviews of the film written after its release on March 6, 1998, and reached out with a simple query for the critics who penned them: Would you review “The Big Lebowski” similarly now? Or has your opinion of the movie changed with the benefit of two decades’ time?
Alex Ross, Slate
1998 review: “The trouble starts with the plot,” Ross, now the New Yorker’s music critic, wrote for Slate. “The great flaw in most of the Coens’ work is, surprisingly, an inability to sustain a plot over a two-hour span. … In Lebowski, we lose track not only of plot devices but of whole characters, who come and go without finding a reason to be. (John) Turturro is wasted as a bowler named Jesus, a convicted pedophile in Spandex. He is an amazing creation, but he has no function.”
2018 revision: “I was afraid someone would dig this up! Honestly, I’m not sure I have much to say. There was a brief period when I wanted to become a movie critic, but this piece and a few other attempts for Slate showed a lack of aptitude for the genre. I’ve been better off sticking to music. As for ‘The Big Lebowski’ itself, ‘Blood Simple’ is still my favorite Coen brothers movie, and I still have issues with their work, but the bottom line is that I missed the point.”
David Denby, New York magazine
Review: “ ‘The Big Lebowski’ is an off-kilter thriller with a sad-sack hero,” Denby, now a critic at the New Yorker, wrote in a short review for New York. “The Dude shuffles through life in a fumy, pothead haze; he’s so slack-brained he can’t finish a sentence. … Bridges and Goodman stumble through far too many superfluous adventures together. It’s only amusing the first time the Dude gets lost in his own story — a story so incoherent that he can’t explain it to anyone. What’s the point of scoring off morons who think they are cool? Jeff Bridges has so much dedication as an actor that he sacrifices himself to the Coen brothers’ self-defeating conception. Even Bridges can’t open up a character who remains unconscious.”
2018 revision: Denby said that his opinion of the film had changed, pointing a Post reporter to a piece he’d written about the Coen brothers for the New Yorker in 2008. “ ‘The Big Lebowski’ received mediocre reviews and did little initial business, but over the years it has built an effervescent cult following,” Denby wrote in the story. “The devotion is entirely deserved. As cult movies go, ‘The Big Lebowski’ is much wittier than ‘Animal House’ or ‘Hairspray,’ and free of the dumb-bunny silliness of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ or the fumy mystical pretensions of ‘El Topo.’ … ‘The Big Lebowski’ is a tribute to harmlessness, friendship, and team bowling. It offers a persistent ‘no’ to the hard-pressing American ‘yes.’ Like ‘Raising Arizona,’ it’s a ballad held together by tenderness.”
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
Review: “The Coen brothers are not twins but they might as well be,” wrote Turan, who is still a film critic for the Los Angeles Times as well as NPR’s “Morning Edition.” “The films they make together are self-contained, almost hermetic alternative universes, worlds that amuse the brothers to no end but are not guaranteed to connect with anyone else. … Though the film has so much plot that the Coens consider ‘Lebowski’ a ’90s version of a Raymond Chandler detective novel, the story line is in truth disjointed, incoherent and even irritating. What you remember and enjoy about this film (if you remember and enjoy it at all) is not the forest but individual trees, engaging riffs as only the Coens can concoct them that amuse and entertain though they connect to nothing else in the film.”
2018 revision: “The truth of the matter is I have not re-seen ‘The Big Lebowski’ since it came out. I am well aware of its cult reputation and wonder myself if I would see it differently now, but I just don’t know.”
Daphne Merkin, The New Yorker
Review: “The movie is sprinkled with references to Jewish rituals — like pepper in gefilte fish — which, just from the sound of them, are meant to be hilarious,” wrote Merkin, a critic and novelist who is no longer with the New Yorker. “While I have nothing against people making fun of other people’s religions, there’s something too easy — not to mention condescending — about the way it’s done here. … ‘The Big Lebowski’ is so drenched in knowingness — it pays homage to everyone from John Lennon to Theodor Herzl — that there’s nothing really at stake. (Insofar as the movie is about anything, it’s about the interface of bowling and Orthodox Judaism.)
The film’s sole gesture toward a narrative structure, for those who still require that sort of thing, is its tongue-in-cheek use of voice-over … ‘The Big Lebowski’ lacks what even the most unhinged comedies must have in order to work: the recognition that out there, beyond the pratfalls and the wisecracks, lurks the darkness. … The Coens can’t be bothered — or perhaps they don’t know how — to make a connection between what’s inside their smart-aleck heads and the plodding, sometimes painful world in which the rest of us live when we’re not at the movies.”
2018 revision: “I think it is a quintessential insider movie, one that plays in this shrewd way to groupthink. You’re either in on it, or you’re not in on it,” Merkin said by phone. “When I re-watched it, there were things I was more struck by. First of all, it’s beautiful to watch with all that cinematography. The Busby Berkeley sequence. I was struck by all that. And think I was more amused by the intense laidback-ness that the film embodies. In some ways, the dude and his disconnected dudeness has a certain appeal now, maybe because the world has grown more horrendous or reality is less bearable than when the film was made. I still think it’s basically more of a guy’s flick, than a woman’s. And it probably helps to be stoned, which isn’t my particular drug. But I did see that it had its virtues.”
Edward Guthmann, San Francisco Chronicle
Review: “Although some of its parts are brilliantly executed and played by a terrific cast, the result is scattered, overamplified and unsatisfying,” wrote Guthmann, a journalist and author who spent about 20 years as a film critic at the Chronicle. “The Coens have a grand time establishing Bridges’s character, and the bowling alley scenes they’ve written for the Dude and his buddies — a loose-cannon Vietnam vet played by Goodman and a nearly wordless dunce played by [Steve] Buscemi — are pure gold. … I would’ve been happier hanging out in the bowling alley for the whole picture. ‘The Big Lebowski’ is ultimately too clever for its own good. There are more ideas here, more wacko side characters and plot curlicues than the film can support, and inevitably it deflates from having to shoulder so much.”
2018 revision: “I think I probably would like it better. I’ve become more accustomed to the Coen brothers’ style. There’s something very manic and cartoony, with not everything they do, like “No Country for Old Men,” but the comedies they do often feel manic. It isn’t exactly my style. … I enjoy Jeff Bridges’s performance very much but what I said there about it shouldering more than it can, I think there is an excess of characters and goofy plot elements going on. … It’s the same with reading a book and seeing a movie — I change and it’s often a new experience to revisit something.”
This post has been updated.
- ^ academic treatments (www.washingtonpost.com)
- ^ The Achievers (www.latimes.com)
- ^ his 1998 review (www.washingtonpost.com)
- ^ has been less impressed (www.washingtonpost.com)
- ^ wrote for Slate (www.slate.com)
- ^ short review for New York (nymag.com)
- ^ wrote in the story (www.newyorker.com)
- ^ wrote Turan (articles.latimes.com)
- ^ wrote Merkin (www.newyorker.com)
- ^ The Busby Berkeley sequence (www.youtube.com)
- ^ I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski (www.bloomsbury.com)
- ^ wrote Guthmann (www.sfgate.com)
- ^ Meet the critic who panned ‘Sgt. Pepper’ then discovered his speaker was busted. He’s still not sorry. (www.washingtonpost.com)
- ^ ‘The Snake’: How Trump appropriated a radical black singer’s lyrics for immigration fearmongering (www.washingtonpost.com)
- ^ Utah’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives made a rap video. Send help. (www.washingtonpost.com)
- ^ ‘The Shed at Dulwich’ was London’s top-rated restaurant. Just one problem: It didn’t exist. (www.washingtonpost.com)
Houston Recalls Legacy of George Bush, Its Lone Star Yankee and Senior Booster
HOUSTON — Inside the airport that bears his name, George Herbert Walker Bush looks, at a distance, as if he’s wearing a cape.
An 8-foot-tall bronze statue at the Houston airport shows Mr. Bush, who , Barbara Bush, who died in April at the age of 92. After Mr. Bush’s death on Friday, Houston lost its two most famous residents in the span of seven months.
“George H.W. Bush served with valor and integrity as the 41st president of the United States,” Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, said in a statement. “But to Houstonians he was one of our most esteemed and relatable neighbors. He and his wife, Barbara Bush, were our sports teams’ biggest fans, and boosters for everything Houston.”
This was the man whose most memorable quote in years had to do with men’s hosiery. In 2012, as his fondness for wearing bright eye-catching socks was going strong, he explained that he simply “likes a good sock.” At his wife’s funeral at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Mr. Bush wore a pair of socks with a colorful stack-of-books design, a tribute to Mrs. Bush’s advocacy work for family literacy.
In Houston and its surrounding suburbs, Mr. Bush had not only an airport in his name but a park, a high school and a few more life-size statues. Above Buffalo Bayou, a bronze statue of Mr. Bush looks out into the distance with his hand in his pocket, gazing at, of all things, James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state and Mr. Bush’s tennis partner at the Houston Country Club. The statues of the two close friends face each other in the downtown park, separated by about 100 yards, in Houston’s oddest and longest-running staring contest.
“All I can do now,” Mr. Bush told The New York Times in 2011 about the statue, “is hope that the pigeons will be kind and gentle.”
Charles C. Foster, a Houston immigration lawyer and a longtime friend of the Bush family, came up with the idea for the George H.W. Bush Monument, which was unveiled in 2004. Mr. Foster recalled the day he sat in Mr. Bush’s office at 10000 Memorial Drive and asked for his blessing for the project.
“He looked at me and he sort of looked up at the ceiling,” Mr. Foster said. “He pointed to the ceiling and said, ‘Shouldn’t you wait until I’m up there?’ And then he said, pointing downward, ‘Or perhaps down there?’”
In 1990, Mr. Bush helped turn the eyes of the world to Houston.
As president, he brought thousands of reporters and foreign dignitaries to Houston that summer for the Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations, an annual gathering of the world’s economic powers. The summits had been held in a number of global cities — London, Tokyo, Paris, Venice — and Mr. Bush made the case that his adopted hometown belonged among such world-class company.
Houston was scrappier back then. The city was rebounding from an oil bust in the 1980s that crippled the economy, and it tried hard to present its best, and cleanest, face to the cameras and the visitors, picking up millions of pounds of trash, repaving roads and enlisting the aid of 12,000 volunteers.
“That was huge for Houston,” Mr. Foster said of the 1990 summit. “When the president had a chance, he could have picked some mountain retreat. But he picked his hometown. He was well aware of the chip on our shoulders that we didn’t feel like Houston got the recognition that it should.”
Now, with 2.3 million residents (compared with 1.6 million in 1990), Houston is the fourth-largest city in America, known as much for its diversity as its energy-capital status. George Bush High School, part of the Fort Bend school district, is 43 percent Hispanic, 38 percent black, 12 percent Asian and 4 percent white. More than 90 languages and dialects are spoken in the district.
Early Saturday morning in the upscale Tanglewood area, Houstonians paused at the gates at South Post Oak Lane and North West Oak Drive — the entrance to the gated community where Mr. Bush lived. Someone draped an American flag in the center of the gates, decorated for the holidays with Christmas wreaths.
Shirley Matthews, 66, a lifelong Houstonian who lives nearby, walked up and took a picture of the memorial for her mother. “He was just a good person,” she said. “He wasn’t perfect. But it’s family, and we love each other.”
A Close Race, a Mysterious Ballot and Control of Alaska’s House at Stake
With a crucial legislative seat in Alaska teetering toward a tie earlier this month, lawmakers in Juneau braced for the possibility of a coin toss deciding control of the state’s House of Representatives. Then a mysterious extra ballot emerged that threw the process into further disarray.
Amid several counts, the latest coming on Friday afternoon, a single ballot drew scrutiny across the state.
The state’s review board certified the race, between Kathryn Dodge, a Democrat, and Bart LeBon, a Republican, as a tie earlier this week, with exactly 2,661 votes going to each candidate. The extra ballot, for Ms. Dodge, could have settled the race for the Fairbanks-area district seat.
Later on Friday, the mystery appeared to have been solved — but the standoff over who won the election continued.
Samantha Miller, a spokeswoman for the state elections office, said that workers at Fairbanks’s No. 6 precinct told officials that a woman had come into the polling place to request a special needs ballot on behalf of her husband, who was outside in a vehicle.
The woman came back into the precinct. Her husband had made a mistake, she told the precinct worker, and needed a new ballot. She left behind the one he had already marked, thus making it a spoiled ballot.
The precinct chair told the worker who took the spoiled ballot to put it into a secrecy sleeve, “and that they would deal with it later in the day,” Ms. Miller said.
But instead, the spoiled ballot was put into a compartment with other questioned ballots.
Typically, Ms. Miller said, spoiled ballots are destroyed once they are accounted for. So, because the mystery ballot was found to be spoiled, it will not be counted, she said.
Still, that left the question of what happens if the recount that began on Friday afternoon ends in a tie — again.
Ms. Miller said that both candidates had five days to file a legal challenge to the results. And if the court decided the recount went as it should have, and the race was still a tie?
The prevailing candidate would be determined “by lot,” Ms. Miller said. “It could be a coin toss or some other way of deciding, as long as it’s random.”
It would not be the first time an Alaska race was determined by coin toss.
The state’s elections director at the time flipped an Alaska Mint medallion — the side with a walrus being heads and the side with the state seal being tails. It landed state seal side up.
Ms. Miller would not speculate about when the recount would be complete, but said both candidates were present, along with observers and officials.
Mr. LeBon did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
Sara Harriger, a spokeswoman for Ms. Dodge, said in a statement that during Friday’s recount, one additional vote was found for Ms. Dodge and a challenged ballot was allowed for her opponent, Mr. LeBon, which meant that the tally stood at 2,662 apiece. Still tied.
Ms. Dodge said in a statement that she believed every legally cast ballot should be counted. “I just want everyone watching this process to take away a sense of confidence in our democratic system and a commitment to cast their votes in future races,” she said, “and knowing that their votes will matter.”
Ms. Dodge had said earlier on Friday that legal action “unfortunately” seemed probable.
“It’s certainly not what any of us expect when we set out to campaign, to find ourselves in a squeaker of this nature,” she said. “I hope we don’t have a coin toss. I don’t know quite what to say, but it doesn’t feel like it’s an appropriate way to settle an election.”
In Alaska, the repercussions of this race will be felt into the next legislative session, though party control of the House in Juneau will be far from clear-cut.
Political coalitions in Juneau do not always come down to party-line votes like in other state houses. Even if Ms. Dodge wins the race, Democrats would still not have an outright majority, and so members of the House will still be tasked with negotiating a coalition majority.
3 Killed After Pickup Truck Fleeing Border Patrol Hits Tire Spikes and Crashes
Three people in a packed pickup truck were killed on Thursday afternoon after the driver ran over tire spikes and crashed on a Southern California highway while trying to flee Border Patrol officers, the authorities said.
The officers turned on their vehicle’s emergency lights and began chasing the pickup truck on Interstate 8, near Boulevard, Calif., at around 4:20 p.m., according to the United States Customs and Border Protection. The authorities said they believed that the pickup truck had been illegally driven over the southern border and had crashed through an “iron bar vehicle barrier.” They said they identified it by matching a piece that was missing from the truck to one agents had spotted on the ground near the border, though they did not elaborate.
The pickup truck reached speeds of over 100 miles per hour, weaving between cars and bypassing others on the side of the highway, before it drove over spikes that the Border Patrol had placed on the road, the California Highway Patrol said. About a mile later, the truck spun out of control and flipped over, ejecting the nine people who were riding in the truck’s bed, the authorities said.
A woman inside the truck, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was killed, as were two people riding in the bed, the police said. Seven people who had “multiple serious injuries” were taken to the hospital, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection said.
The driver, a United States citizen whose name was not released, was the only person wearing a seatbelt, the agency said. The California Highway Patrol took the man into custody, but it was not clear whether he had been charged. The identities of the passengers in the truck have not been released either.
“The investigation into the smuggling incident is ongoing,” the spokesman said in an email, “and the Border Patrol is fully cooperating with the CHP in their investigation of the collision.”
About an hour after the crash, the Border Patrol stopped another vehicle that officers believed had crossed over the border with the pickup truck, the agency said. The driver of that car was also arrested.