Is ‘The Big Lebowski’ The Coen Brothers’ Best Movie?

We here at Uproxx have declared the week of July 11 Lebowski Week. This is the first in a series of Big Lebowski-themed pieces we’ll publish this week. They will all be archived here for your enjoyment.

So, is The Big Lebowski the best Coen brothers movie?

At this point, Lebowski is probably the most popular Coen brothers movie. It has the highest score of any Coen brothers film on IMDb, just edging out Fargo and No Country For Old Men. It is one of two Coen brothers films (with Fargo) to be inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Lebowski has infiltrated pop culture the deepest — Lebowski posters adorn dorm walls, Lebowski paintings are given away at summer carnivals like stuffed bears, and Lebowski memes still populate email chains. Lebowski is the one Coen brothers movie that your father-in-law has most likely heard of, with the possible exception of True Grit. Then there are the super fans — for them, Lebowski has transcended cinema and become a lifestyle.

But is Lebowski the best Coen brothers movie?

My take: Almost, but not quite. I think Lebowski is the funniest Coen brothers movie. (Sorry, Raising Arizona.) I would argue that it has the best soundtrack. (Apologies, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) I believe that it contains the best John Goodman performance in the Joel and Ethan Coen universe. (Je suis désolé, Barton Fink.) But as an overall film experience measured against the rest of the Coen brothers canon, my gut tells me that Fargo is a smidge better.

Fargo to me is the closest thing there is to a perfect movie. It delivers everything you could possibly want: It is suspenseful, strange, heartwarming, horrific, sweet, silly, and haunting — occasionally in the space of the same scene. (Have one on me, Mike Yanagita.) Fargo doesn’t have as many laughs or quotable lines as Lebowski, but it’s not that far off. And I guess Fargo just feels — what’s the word? — weightier to me. But Lebowski is right behind it at No. 2.

(Hey, I need to make my usual persnickety distinction between “best” and “favorite.” When I say Fargo is the best Coen brothers movie, what I’m really saying is, “I feel like this movie best represents what the Coen brothers do.” However, if we’re talking my favorite Coens, it would be the movie that I would be most excited to re-watch right now, and that movie is Inside Llewyn Davis.)

Enough about me. Let’s talk about how Lebowski is regarded by everybody else. Earlier this year, around the time Hail, Caesar! was released, seemingly every culture site and publication on the face of the planet decided to rank Coen brothers films. This sort of thing happens every time a new Coen brothers movie comes out. You know how guests at a backyard barbecue gorge on guacamole dip the second you put it out? Film critics are like that when it comes to excuses to rank Coen brothers films. There were so many lists that Slate did a thinkpiece about the trend and Flavorwire compiled a tongue-in-cheek list that ranked all of the Coen brothers lists.

Because I’m a masochist who relishes the sweet rage that derives from the film opinions of strangers, I read every Coen brothers list I could find. And what I discovered shocked me.

Lebowski is sort of underrated.

Out of the nine lists that I saw — by Vulture, GQWashington Post, The Wrap, Indiewire, Slate, The Atlantic, Thrillist, and Screencrush — Lebowski ranked no higher than third. Generally, it was stuck back with The Man Who Wasn’t There and Blood Simple in the middle of the pack. Sometimes, Lebowski fared worse than even that. The Atlantic put it at No. 11 out of 17 films, claiming that Lebowski is “not always successful.” Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday ranked Lebowski as only the 13th best Coen Brothers movie — “I still don’t get it,” she wrote, arguing that Burn After Reading is funnier.

Speaking as someone who has defended Burn After Reading in multiple social media threads: That is insane.

What is going on here? Lebowski ranks among the most beloved Coen brothers movies among moviegoers, so why doesn’t it do better on lists compiled by critics? I have two theories.

Theory No. 1: Art is subjective. There is no such thing as a definitive “right” opinion about anything, so getting upset about how other people feel is pointless. All that matters are your own responses. Ultimately, we are all “correct.”

This theory is inarguably true. It is also a buzzkill. If we buy into this theory, the conversation ends here. And I don’t want it to end here, because I’m having a good time. However, I understand if you want to bail. Go re-watch Inside Llewyn Davis instead. Peace.

Theory No. 2: Lebowski has been Borat-ized. 

The downside of a great movie becoming a cultural touchstone is that it inevitably becomes a little tired. Let’s say you’ve seen The Big Lebowski twice. There’s a decent chance that you’ve also seen it referenced in other media hundreds of times. Even if you’ve seen Lebowski zero times, you probably know all about the Dude and Walter and the Jesus and Sioux City Sarsaparilla and coitus and Caucasians, just from osmosis. Did I mention that your father-in-law knows Lebowski? So does that dopey guy in your office — he loves this movie. He dressed up as the Dude for Halloween. Even went to one of those Lebowski conventions. Can’t stop quoting it — even now, 18 years later.

While you don’t want that stuff to influence your opinion of Lebowski, you can’t help it, because that stuff just filters in automatically. Lebowski seems kind of… bro-ish, right? At least A Serious Man doesn’t have that baggage. 

Look, I get it. But I must point out that it wasn’t always this way. I saw Lebowski the day it came out, and I didn’t like it. Most people didn’t in 1998. Lebowski was widely perceived to be a confounding, confusing, and barely coherent mess. Perhaps I’m remembering it wrong — the reviews appear to be kinder than I recall. But The New Yorker best captured what the feeling about Lebowski seemed to be at the time: “In the end there’s no escaping the feeling that the Coens are speaking a secret language.” That’s not a compliment, by the way.

Commercially, Lebowski bombed. Coming off the mainstream triumph of Fargo, Lebowski was viewed as a disappointment. In the box office history of the Coen Brothers, Lebowski is outpaced by The Ladykillers by a factor of more than two-to-one. The Ladykillers!

My friend Andy was the only person I knew who liked Lebowski. And he didn’t just like it — he was obsessed with it. When it came out on video, Andy watched Lebowski pretty much every day. At first, I chalked it up to Andy being a Coen brothers fanboy. But eventually his love of Lebowski made me curious enough to revisit it, and soon, I loved it, too. I learned that the secret to appreciating Lebowski is seeing it enough times to get past the nonsensical plot, so you can simply enjoy spending time with the characters. (Lebowski is one of the greatest “hangout” movies ever.) Also: Coens comedies are generally more “difficult” than the dramas. No Country For Old Men and Burn After Reading are about the same thing — there is no God, life comes down to chance, the only certainty is death. But No Country won Best Picture and Burn After Reading is generally considered the second-best Brad Pitt film of 2008 (after The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). What I’m saying is, the comedies require patience.

Now, I just assumed that Lebowski was something that my friend group enjoyed. For a while, it seemed like nobody else liked Lebowski. Then, just like that, it was as if EVERYBODY liked it. As far as I can tell, this happened organically. The rise of Lebowski coincided with the rise of the internet, but it was back before social media took over. In the early ’00s, it took some time to figure out what fringe-y things were secretly popular.

(The other fringe-y thing that surprised me by being secretly popular: Weezer. I didn’t think anyone still cared about that band in 2000. And then the whole world cared for a minute, at which point Weezer also become super-annoying.)

Back then, it was mind-blowing to find another person who was into Lebowski. But that’s not true anymore. If you’re a cinephile, it’s more enjoyable to stump for The Hudsucker Proxy, because that movie could use more love. Or, if you’re a working film critic in 2016, you might feel loyalty for the films that were formative experiences when you were younger, which likely means Raising Arizona or Miller’s Crossing. Meanwhile, Lebowski doesn’t have that specialness. It has become the last Coen Brothers movie that “needs” extra attention.

But you know what? I just re-watched Lebowski for the umpteenth time and it holds all the way up. The Jesus sequence is still magnificent. Philip Seymour Hoffman is fantastic, but so is Tara Reid. John Goodman’s line reading on “Shomer f*cking Shabbos!” still makes me laugh harder than pretty much anything in cinema. In terms of pure enjoyment, there aren’t many films that top it — Lebowski is a greatest hits album of scenes you love.

So, is it the best Coen Brothers movie? Perhaps there’s room for one more theory.

Theory No. 3: The Big Lebowski would be the best movie for 99.9 percent of filmmakers with a less loaded filmography.

I think that’s right, but that’s just, like, my opinion, man.