Film noir parodies and pastiches have existed since the genre’s inception, and it’s easy to see why. The self-seriousness of its tricks, like the hardbitten narration or the underworld kingpin, lends itself to the task. Naked Gun and its sequels are the best in the business at this form of mockery.
Yet that’s not really what film noir is about. Film noir needs a sense of despair and dead-ends, and that’s difficult to pull off when you’re cracking wise. Narration and shadow are just tools to achieve the film noir feel, not the essence of film noir themselves.
Despite its dopey tone, Big Lebowski does not reach for low-hanging fruit. It is, for the most part, a film noir, but it replaces the genre’s worldly attitude with the good humor of a pothead.
Jeff Bridges plays Lebowski (referred to as “The Dude”), a stoner from Los Angeles who bowls, drinks, smokes, and does little else. Unfortunately, his name bears a resemblance to Jeffrey Lebowski, a millionaire whose profligate wife has racked up debts to the underworld. Thugs rough up the wrong Lebowski by accident and trash his stuff, so the Stoner Lebowski seeks reparations from Millionaire Lebowski.
This is just a pretext for the main plot. Millionaire Lebowski’s wife is kidnapped, and he demands that Stoner Lebowski crack the case. What follows is a loose re-telling of Chandler’s The Big Sleep. The Coen brothers keep the ditzy wife, dirty money, corrupt beachfront cops, pornography rings, and femme fatale (played winningly by Julianne Moore). And, of course, Lebowski gets roughed up more than once. At least once or twice a film, noir heroes get their derrieres handed to them. Their refusal to stay down, not their ability to win, informs their heroism.
There’s a more overt reference to film noir later on. Lebowski runs into a real detective named Da Fino who’s actually working the case normally. The result is surreal. For a hot minute, the film has a straight-laced film noir protagonist trading dialogue with his comedy counterpart.
But the replacement of the stoic Marlowe with an affable slacker is the source of The Big Lebowski‘s comedic genius. For the most part, Lebowski observes the crumbling social bulwarks of Los Angeles with a patient shrug and a well-adjusted attitude. This exasperates the tragic elements of film noir. A Dickensian picture of an urban morass cannot bear the indignity of happiness. In literature, there’s a term for this: bathos.
These parallels are expertly disguised. In the director’s commentary for Lebowski, the Coen brothers explicitly cop to parodying film noir, but most viewers never recognize it as such.