From the Washington Post:
By Eli Rosenberg March 7
… 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 public didn’t think much of it either upon its theatrical release in 1998: It opened soft and didn’t particularly show legs, winding up with $17 million in North America, the equivalent of $34 million today. That’s not terrible, but nobody much noticed the movie until it started showing up on cable TV the next year, at which point it seemed extremely funny.
This was the Coen Brothers’ seventh movie since Blood Simple in 1985, all of which had enjoyed some critical acclaim except The Hudsucker Proxy (which I think is hilarious but nobody else does). Their previous film, Fargo, had won some Oscars. (It’s possible that Fargo’s Oscars hurt the initial reception of The Big Lebowski by raising expectations of An Important Statement or some such.)
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?
Obviously, the question of whether a comedy is a good movie depends upon how funny it is.
But a lot of critics couldn’t follow the plot and didn’t seem to grasp that The Big Lebowski was inspired by a famous anecdote about the making of the 1946 film noir The Big Sleep that is one of the better known stories in the screenwriting trade. From an LA Times article in 1997:
Probably the best-known remark about the famously scrambled plot of “The Big Sleep” belongs to Raymond Chandler, author of the novel on which the 1946 movie was based. Asked who killed the Sternwoods’ chauffeur, a key murder left unsolved at the movie’s end, Chandler replied: “I don’t know.”
Neither the director (Howard Hawks) nor the screenwriters (William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, who adapted alternate chapters from the novel; Jules Furthman, who did rewrites and provided some of the best Bogart-Bacall wisecracks; and Philip Epstein, who wrote added scenes and inserted the sexiest double-entendres) ever did figure it out.
The Coens’ Barton Fink had featured John Mahoney playing a version of Faulkner in exile in Hollywood, so it should have been pretty obvious that it was riffing on Chandler’s lack of interest in the whodunnit aspects of his detective stories.
Now, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that the lack of effort put into the plot in both the novel and movie of The Big Sleep are defects. But they were still awfully influential in the history of movies and literary Los Angeles. And the Coens’ idea of doing a Big Sleep tribute/travesty in which dope addicts / bowlers do a half-assed job of investigating a convoluted and somewhat pointless plot should have been recognized as promising.
Critic Daphne Merkin re-assessed in 2018:
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.
No child will ever smile again until Trump is gone from the White House. Has it been mandatory since November 9, 2016 to insert an assertion of the horribleness of the current moment in all cultural commentary?
I still think it’s basically more of a guy’s flick, than a woman’s.
This is the kind of thing that critics aren’t supposed to say, but it explains a lot. That raises the question: what women’s movies are cult films?
There are movies that appeal largely to women like the Twilight and Fifty Shades series, but they tend not to be very good. Good movies that appeal mostly to women that reach cult status tend to be due to gay men creating a cult around them.
The most similar women’s movie to The Big Lebowski is likely the 1997 comedy Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion about two Venice Beach blondes played by Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino. That made $29 million at the domestic box office, which was enough to be modestly profitable.
I had never heard of a Romy and Michele cult, but now I see a few articles referring to it as a cult classic. Searching on Google for:
“Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” cult
gives 29,000 hits, while a similar search for the Coen Brothers movie brings up 450,000 hits, so the guy movie is about 16x as cultish as the girl movie. Granted, the Coen Brothers are better at comedy than the people who made Romy and Michele, but they weren’t bad. For example, the director, David Mirkin, wrote this:
In general, are women less nostalgic than men?