Every Detective Film Is a Comedy: On “The Big Lebowski” at 25
By Jason NameyOctober 19, 2023
Detective films are supposed to begin like Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946): a millionaire summons the hardboiled PI to his mansion. But 31 years after the heyday of film noir, Robert Altman refused to take the genre so seriously. He turned this classic setup into a burlesque joke. The Long Goodbye (1973) opens with a cat summoning Marlowe (Elliott Gould) for a can of wet food.
This scene runs for 10 languorous minutes—a serious commitment for a detective film, a genre whose dense plots make every second count. But this scene is more than just a gag—although it is a gag. The Long Goodbye’s opening shows a miniature reenactment of the central tension in detective films: the desire to find the absolute truth amid a world that keeps feeding you cheap alternatives.
The cat takes on the role of the detective here, hungry for food the way Marlowe hungers for justice. It meows, jumping on Marlowe’s chest until he wakes up. This early in the morning, Marlowe doesn’t feel like driving to the store. So he tries a simple lie, stirring together cottage cheese and raw egg. Tells the cat, “That’ll be delicious.” But the cat sees right through this. It barely sniffs the sick concoction before overturning the aluminum bowl onto the kitchen floor.
So, at 3:00 a.m., Marlowe must go out in search of Courry Brand cat food. He must descend into the dark world, driving over to an all-night supermarket. Of course, they’re out. “Why don’t you get this?” the pragmatic clerk suggests, gesturing to another of the many cans. “All this shit is the same anyway.” But the cat doesn’t want any of this other shit, Marlowe knows. It will settle for nothing less than the truth.
Maybe truth is just an illusion? Maybe truth is just a habit? Marlowe tries another ruse: he buys a different brand, switches this wet food into an old Courry can from his recycling bin, then pretends to open up and dump a can of “fresh” Courry into his cat’s bowl. But the cat is not fooled. Now the animal escapes through an open window, running out into the night. It will have to go find the truth for itself. It will have to confront the possibility that this truth may not even exist. But the honorable detective would starve before settling for anything less.
This opening allegory provides insight into the noir detective plot while also parodying it. Altman makes the genre into a joke: the detective becomes a cat sniffing around for the right brand of wet food. But maybe the genre is a joke. Maybe every solution is just a punch line.
If Altman proposed this hypothesis, then the Coen brothers proved it in their 1998 masterpiece The Big Lebowski. The Coens revitalized the detective film by identifying—and then highlighting—the deep comic impulse hiding inside every mystery story.
Jokes and detective films both work by subverting expectations. When a comedian begins her setup, or when a film introduces a mystery, the audience in each case makes assumptions about where the story will go. They do this even as they know—simply from the fact that they are sitting in a movie theater or comedy club—that some of these assumptions will be overturned.
We form these expectations subconsciously. Our brains make sense of the world by identifying patterns. This works most of the time. Many of our daily interactions do follow a rough script.
For example, when you go to a restaurant, you know what questions the waiter will ask (“What would you like to drink?”; “Are you ready for the check?”). Any violation of this script feels jarring. But sometimes these violations just show that we have the wrong script in mind. If a waiter approaches your table but then begins talking about old high school classmates, this feels very strange and unsettling—until you recognize the waiter as a friend from way back whom you haven’t seen in a while.
According to Victor Raskin, a linguist at Purdue University, many jokes follow a similar pattern. They make the listener think she is following one type of script, then “flip” to a different one. Here is Raskin’s favorite example, from his 1984 book Semantic Mechanisms of Humor: “‘Is the doctor at home?’ the patient asked in his bronchial whisper. ‘No,’ the doctor’s young and pretty wife whispered in reply. ‘Come right in.’” We assume that the patient is there seeking medical treatment, but when the doctor’s wife says, “Come right in,” we experience an unexpected jolt: the two of them are lovers. The patient’s first question fits both scripts, but then the doctor’s wife violates the “medical treatment” script and reveals the real one.
This script-flipping applies to detective films at the narrative level. The plot leads the viewer toward the false solution, the off-brand cat food, before “flipping” the script at the end. As with a joke, this new solution must both follow logically from the setup and feel surprising. Viewers will expect a twist, but they can’t expect this twist.
In detective films, as in jokes, nothing is ever as it seems. Comedy and mystery, then, share the same DNA. The Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski—which turns 25 this year—shows this better than any film before it.
The Big Lebowski opens on The Dude (Jeff Bridges) stumbling through the dairy aisle at Ralph’s. The scene feels reminiscent of Marlowe browsing the supermarket shelves for cat food, except Gould’s Marlowe is a misplaced New Yorker, chain-smoking in his suit, and The Dude is all California. He wears a bathrobe and sandals, sunglasses indoors. We watch him sniff cartons of half-and-half and then purchase one—which he has clearly already sampled; drops of milk dot his beard—with a $0.69 check.
When The Dude arrives home, two thugs ambush him. One of them shoves The Dude into the bathroom—the carton of half-and-half explodes onto the wall—and dunks his head repeatedly into the toilet bowl. “Where’s the money, Lebowski?” he demands. “We want that money, Lebowski. Bunny says you’re good for it.” Meanwhile, the second thug unzips his pants and urinates on The Dude’s rug. But the two intruders soon realize they’ve got the wrong guy (“Isn’t [Lebowski] supposed to be a millionaire?”) and leave. The Dude, and his rug, have suffered from a case of mistaken identity.
Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me” then starts playing over a montage of shots from a bowling alley, where the camera finds The Dude sharing a lane with his friends Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi), telling them about the strange events that just befell him. As The Dude explains, those thugs really meant to intimidate a different guy, a guy who shares The Dude’s (real) name—Jeffrey Lebowski. This other Lebowski, the rich “Big” Lebowski (David Huddleston), has a wife named Bunny (Tara Reid) who owes money to the thugs’ boss. Now The Dude is out one rug because of someone else’s mistake.
Well, as the presence of Sam Elliott’s narration serves to remind us, Los Angeles was once centered in the Wild West, a chaotic and lawless land where honor-bound loners, vigilante defenders of Truth and Honor, established order against corruption. And this worldview, the idea that we should all actually stand for something, finds embodiment in John Goodman’s Walter, a pious and obscene Vietnam veteran.
Walter pushes the plot into action (as he will continue to do over and over again throughout the film). The Dude would have passively moved on from the apartment-trashing with another night of bowling and Miller High Life, but Walter convinces him to seek justice. “I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude,” he says, pumping his fist with vigor. “Across this line, you do not.”
Walter’s belief in absolute, uncrossable lines explains why he feels most comfortable within the highly delineated environment of a bowling alley—and why he draws a gun when another bowler named Smokey (allegedly) traverses one such line during a league match. The joke here, of course, is that Walter believes so strongly in his version of the laws of decency and morality that he will break these rules to defend them. He is simultaneously enforcer and transgressor.
Egged on by Walter, The Dude confronts the Big Lebowski, who turns down his request for a replacement rug. So The Dude steals one anyway. That appears to be that—enough cosmic justice to satisfy The Dude.
Lebowski, though, soon learns that Bunny has been kidnapped, perhaps in retaliation for her debts, and recruits The Dude to pay off the ransom with a cash drop. Supposedly, The Dude is the perfect person for this job because he can identify whether the kidnappers are the same people who peed on his rug. (“He thinks the carpet pissers did this?” The Dude asks skeptically between hits off a joint.)
As The Dude explains this scenario to Walter—the two of them once again sitting in the bowling alley, killing time until The Dude gets his signal to go make the handoff—Walter nods along placidly … until The Dude suggests that Bunny probably just kidnapped herself. At this point, Walter’s mood flips into pure rage. “Those rich fucks,” he mutters. “This whole fucking thing. I did not watch my buddies die face-down in the muck so that this fucking strumpet …”
In Walter’s mind, Bunny—like Smokey—is just another person with her foot over the line. You do that, you make a mockery out of truth. And Walter won’t stand for that. Once a rule has been broken, Walter feels that anything can be done in retaliation. This is why he decides—despite The Dude’s protestations—to switch out Lebowski’s briefcase of cash with a ringer full of Walter’s own dirty underwear. If Bunny kidnapped herself—a random theory The Dude threw out that Walter now takes for absolute fact, despite a lack of concrete evidence—then she doesn’t deserve a dime.
A lot of the humor in The Big Lebowski comes from taking a tough detective figure like Philip Marlowe and dividing his personality traits between The Dude and Walter. Spread across two characters, these traits sprawl and atrophy, like wildlife dropped into the wrong ecosystems.
Walter—a war veteran, as so many fictional private investigators are—possesses the moral principles, the muscle, and the unshakable confidence in the face of danger. (Walter, in fact, only ever acts calm when he is being threatened.) But he’s also emotionally unstable, his behavior driven more by furious indignation than rationality: he references his experiences in Vietnam to justify all of his moral outrage, even—or especially—when the connection is tenuous.
If Walter possesses certain detective traits in excess, then The Dude—who is supposed to be the brains, the logic, the reasoning process—possesses his in shortage. As he wanders through a marijuana-and-vodka haze—“I’m adhering to a pretty strict drug regimen to keep my mind […] limber”—he occasionally flickers into brilliance. But it is only ever a flicker. While at a Malibu mansion belonging to Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), a rich pornographer owed money by the still-missing Bunny, The Dude watches his host surreptitiously jot down and pocket a note while taking a private phone call. Is this a clue? Something to do with Bunny’s disappearance?
After Treehorn slips away, The Dude uses a pencil to shadow the next sheet on the pad—a clever trick meant to capture the indentations of whatever Treehorn wrote down. But The Dude discovers that Treehorn’s “secret” message is actually just a hastily sketched stick figure with a raging erection—a hilarious visual gag that both shows, and undermines, The Dude’s detective skills.
Every attempt to get closer to “the truth” leads The Dude nowhere. For most of the film, he seems hopelessly outmatched. Of course, we will later learn that his efforts only fall flat because his investigation is founded on a lie. The Dude may be incompetent, but the criminals are even more so.
The Dude’s hallucinatory vision at Jackie Treehorn’s mansion provides the real payoff for this scene. In yet another comic sendup of a classic noir trope, the detective gets drugged—in this case, via his White Russian cocktail. (“You mix a hell of a Caucasian,” The Dude slurs, collapsing onto the couch.) Right before slipping into a “darkness […] darker than a black steer’s tokus on a moonless prairie night,” The Dude (speaking in third-person) repeats one of the film’s most iconic lines: “All The Dude ever wanted was his rug back. […] It really tied the room together.”
You get the sense that the Coens feel the same way about this sequence: a cinematic flourish that really ties the film together. The stoner vibe, equal parts relaxed and paranoid, transitions here into an LSD-flashback aesthetic. Roger Deakins’s cinematography is as brilliant as ever: we see Saddam Hussein standing beneath a wall of bowling shoes that stretches to the moon; we see elaborate dance choreography—which critics often compare to the work of Busby Berkeley—and a bowling alley in outer space.
Dare we psychoanalyze these images? I think not. Sometimes a rug is just a rug. In a different movie, The Dude might realize something about himself, but The Big Lebowski is no hero’s journey. The Dude will never learn anything. He will never change. Because then this story would mean something. And that would ruin the whole joke.
In another example of The Dude’s detective work, we see again how his most acute moments of inspiration always end in a punch line. After the botched handoff with the kidnappers, when Walter tosses out the ringer rather than the real briefcase, The Dude’s car is stolen with the Big Lebowski’s money still in the trunk. When the car resurfaces a few scenes later, in bad shape after the thief took it for a joyride, the briefcase of money has predictably disappeared. The police don’t know—and don’t care—who took the car, so The Dude is left to figure this out for himself.
He stumbles onto a lead while trying to extinguish a lit joint that had rebounded onto his lap after he tried to flick it out his closed car window. He finds a sheet of homework stuffed under the seat cushions. It bears the name “Larry Sellers.” The Dude and Walter track down Larry’s address, then interrogate the kid at his parent’s house. Larry, who looks about 15 years old, refuses to talk. He stares back in expressionless deadpan, ignoring every question, unwilling to even verify whether this sheet of homework—now laminated inside a Ziploc bag; nice touch, Dude—is his own. Larry’s silence soon sets off Walter’s short fuse.
Walter, deciding to play hardball, attempts to make Larry talk by destroying something precious to him: the fancy red Corvette parked outside, presumably purchased with their stolen money. “This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!” Walter shouts, swinging a golf club against the car.
His anger once again proves misplaced and out of proportion, and it undermines The Dude’s nice detective work. The Corvette actually belongs to a neighbor, who runs out in his bathrobe to wrench the club from Walter’s hands. Walter and The Dude must flee the scene before learning anything worthwhile.
“No,” The Dude later tells Walter. “It did not look like Larry was about to crack.”
If detective films follow a joke structure, then The Big Lebowski is the most extreme example of this—practically every scene in this mystery sets up, then delivers, a punch line. Seemingly, none of The Dude’s or Walter’s actions ever has its intended effect. This pattern holds true even at the most micro level. After the “kidnappers” track down The Dude, threatening to “cut off [his] Johnson” if he doesn’t hand over the still-missing money, The Dude tries to construct an ad hoc home security system. He hammers a wooden board into his floor, a backstop for wedging shut his front door with a chair. But The Dude forgets that the door opens out rather than in, and when Treehorn’s thugs—thankfully, not the Johnson-cutters—burst in on him, the chair clatters impotently to the floor. Later, The Dude will trip over the board he nailed down.
In the last quarter of the film, we realize that none of The Dude’s or Walter’s efforts could have ever mattered—even if competently deployed—because there was no kidnapping in the first place, nor is there any real money in the missing briefcase. The “solution” arrives all on its own, independently of The Dude and Walter’s investigation, when Bunny drives home from Palm Springs, safe and unharmed. Turns out she had just made an unexpected trip out of town, and a few losers spun her absence to their advantage. Bunny’s nihilist friends from her pornography days tried to extract ransom money from the Big Lebowski, who then used this opportunity to extract (and pocket) some money—otherwise inaccessible to him—from a foundation set up by his deceased wife. The Dude is a patsy. There was never any mystery.
The plot of The Big Lebowski clearly follows the joke structure laid out above. After the big reveal, viewers can rewatch earlier scenes to see how the new script fits: how Lebowski’s hidden motivations underwrote his ostensible ones. But even beyond this, the plot of this film actually is a joke. The ending doesn’t just structurally resemble a punch line—it is a punch line.
The joke is on the mystery genre and all its built-in assumptions: that criminals are clever and interesting; that if the detective just keeps digging, she will discover buried truths about human nature. Lebowski’s anticlimactic ending parodies the genre as severely as Altman’s cat allegory. The Dude and the feline both sniff around for some deeper truth that does not actually exist. Call it Courry Brand cat food, or call it a kidnapped woman, or call it a briefcase filled with cash. The mystery is not more complex than it initially appears, but less. Same with human nature. Criminals are not interesting. They are just bumbling idiots reaching for the nearest briefcase full of money and receiving, instead, Walter’s dirty briefs.
So, more than one script gets flipped when we see Bunny driving home on the interstate: this reveal not only resolves the film’s central question but also inverts viewers’ assumptions about genre. Up until this point, we think we are watching a mystery-comedy—a mystery with comedic elements woven in. What the ending reveals, though, is that we are actually watching the inverse: a comedy-mystery, a work of comic brilliance that uses the mystery formula as an elaborate setup for a punch line made at the expense of this very formula.
Genres transform when implicit energies are rendered explicit. The erotic thrillers of the 1990s, for example, move the subtle sexual tension of classic noir into the center of the screen. Comedic noirs like The Big Lebowski turn the punch line structure of a mystery’s climax into a literal punch line, one where the truth is far simpler, and sillier, than viewers could ever have imagined. In many ways, this simple/silly worldview turns out to be far more troubling than the complex—but tidy—world of classic noir.
The Big Lebowski has a lot of fun at nihilists’ expense, but the story ultimately is a nihilistic one. There is no meaning or profound explanation behind any mystery, just randomness and opportunism. Viewers feel foolish for craving deep and complex solutions. We are like Walter, clinging onto absurd principles that lack all justification—moral or logical—and only serve to make us look naive.
Life is a cosmic joke, played on us all.
There is one major difference between detective plots and joke structure. The setup of a joke is boring; it only exists to service the punch line. But in a detective film, the setup is often more interesting and enjoyable than the solution. In many serious-minded detective noirs, the ending actually feels like a bad joke, a hasty wrap-up after so much promising intrigue. The rare exceptions—like Chinatown (1974)—become instant canon.
Ultimately, this is the brilliance of combining comedy with mystery, a synthesis never done better than in The Big Lebowski. Because, when the solution to the mystery is a punch line, then the film gets to have it both ways: the suspense of a well-set-up mystery, and the satisfying and punchy conclusion of a well-told joke. This combination is almost impossible to pull off—all too often, the comedy undermines the mystery, or vice versa. But the Coen brothers nail this high-wire act, which explains why we’re still talking about, and laughing at, The Big Lebowski 25 years later.
Jason Namey has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Cincinnati. His short fiction has appeared in Post Road, Puerto del Sol, Juked, Hobart, and Moon City Review.
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