“Sometimes there’s a man — well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.” Thus the voiceover narration in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski describes a man wearing a T-shirt, boxers and bath robe, ambling down a Ralph’s aisle in search of a carton of half-and-half. The filmmakers’ first L.A. movie (besides the period piece Barton Fink) satirizes the unique atmosphere of the place by way of a melange of generic conventions, from hard-boiled detective yarns to westerns to musicals. It also satirizes the 90s as the final inertial payoff of the formerly radical 60s generation. The character who embodies these points of reference is, to be clear, not the title character but someone who shares his name — someone who conveniently prefers to go by the nickname “The Dude” anyway. Joining a lineage of counterculture spins on the traditionally beleaguered film noir protagonist, the Dude has become an icon in his own right, influencing later languid antiheroes, including a slacker poet who calls himself Moondog in Harmony Korine’s The Beach Bum. Moondog exists in a similar climate to the Dude, though on the opposite coast, in the perhaps even stranger environs of South Florida. The different locations have a lot to do with what makes these films feel so different, despite both stories involving roughly the same amounts of death, dismemberment, vandalism and drug-induced confusion.
The city of Los Angeles (pronounced ANGLE-ES by the wandering cowboy spirit Sam Elliott with his smiling mustache, in keeping with the Coens’ idiosyncratic obsession, not only with words themselves, but with unusual or forgotten pronunciations) is where the tumbleweed comes to rest, the endpoint of wild west individualism, a place of swimming pool lounging, car radio blasting, performance art flailing, and beach blanket trampolining. Oh, and, of course, bowling. It’s one of the Dude’s two preferred activities, along with relaxing. And if he can relax while bowling, he’s really got it made. But between his perpetually ruffled Vietnam veteran friend Walter and the absurd coincidence of coming across another Jeffrey Lebowski, the Dude will not be permitted to relax for most of the movie’s two hours. There’s a mystery to be solved, which turns out to be essentially a staircase leading nowhere — a staircase that, through the interventions of the Dude and Walter, branches off into other staircases, also going nowhere. At the heart of it all, though, is a simple quest for justice, with the Dude seeking to balance the scales after his beloved rug gets soiled in an act of misplaced retribution. For all his apparent laziness and incompetence, the Dude, amusingly enough, fulfills the role of the traditional hero, recognizing that there’s a right thing to do, and that it isn’t getting done. And if he can come out on the other side with a lot of money, that works too.
Moondog could very well be the next evolutionary stage of the Dude, shedding most of that sense of a world out of whack while retaining the addiction to comfort. The Beach Bum is one of Korine’s remorseless portraits of the underclass, both hilarious and cutting in its refusal of consequences. Perhaps this also is a function of the “Florida Man” ethos of the story, in which the main character glides through each potential setback and tragedy with the same regressive high-pitched laugh. Moondog describes himself as a “reverse paranoiac” who is “quite certain that the world is conspiring to make me happy,” and it’s hard to argue. In the role, Matthew McConaughey mimics the familiar Dude look that Jeff Bridges created — the long hair, the sunglasses and shorts, the slouch — but not once is there even a hint of the same befuddled irritation. If we squint at it, the plot of the movie is somewhat noir-ish: A man witnesses his wife being unfaithful to him (after he himself has cavorted with several other women, I should point out), then she dies in a car accident that somehow leaves him almost entirely unharmed, and he spends the rest of the movie trying to get his hands on her considerable fortune. For the last part, we really, really have to squint. The trying is absolutely minimal, and each of these plot points is treated with a sense of resignation rather than suspense. All he has to do is put out a second volume of plagiarized and/or incoherent poetry (having already published one), and the money is his — only to be immediately squandered in a blaze of anarchic glory. Moondog lives his life in a perpetual high, whereas the bulk of the Dude’s drug use is behind him, his even keel now getting jolted by “the occasional acid flashback.”
Madness reigns in these visions of America’s two sun-bleached coasts. The Coens do maintain their sense of morality throughout, holding onto the hope that the misbehavior of the idle rich might blow back on them, and that while the innocents tend to suffer the most, their loss might be a wake-up call for the rest of us. Korine offers the more nihilistic view of a new century, with the most cathartic sequence in The Beach Bum showing an army of vagabonds wreaking havoc on a mansion in slow motion: destruction without hope. It’s the elevation of personal ugliness to the level of visual poetry that’s been a hallmark of Korine’s career. The Coens take a more jaundiced approach to ugliness. In The Big Lebowski, as in their other screwball efforts from Raising Arizona to Hail, Caesar!, the outlandish predicaments of tragically striving individuals are met with a laugh and a shake of the head. Judgment awaits us all, so why not quietly steal a fancier rug from the other Jeffrey Lebowski. Serves him right for preaching personal responsibility to you while denying any for himself.