Jonathan Chait

The True Greatness Of Walter Sobchak

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A.O. Scott has a series of brief video appreciations of old films. I don't know how I missed this, but one of the reviews is of the Big Lebowski.

The series is a lot of fun to watch, and I like Scott's selection of films in general, not just this one. That said, the review seems to miss the things that make the movie great. Scott describes the movie as being fundamentally about “the tedium and trivia of ordinary life.” This is an odd description of a story that concerns a collection of oddball characters navigating through a complex plot that bears no relationship to anybody's concept of "ordinary life."

I'd also take issue with Scott's description of John Goodman's character, Walter Sobchak, as an "Orthodox Jew, Vietnam vet, and a passionate advocate for the cause of free speech." The last part is sardonic, and introduces Goodman bellowing about his right to express himself in a family-style restaurant. Still, this misses the interesting qualities of the character. First, he was a converted Orthodox Jew from a Polish working-class background -- which is to say, he held to the customs of Orthodox Judaism but expressed them in a manner unlike any Orthodox Jew I've ever known. ("Shomer Shabbas! Shomer fucking Shabbas!") Second, his fundamental belief is in standing up to aggression. Which is to say he was, as David Haglund has written, a neoconservative. Walter's neoconservative hawkishness fundamentally drives both the plot of the movie and much of its humor:

DUDE:
Walter, you can't do that. These guys're like me, they're pacificists. Smokey was a conscientious objector.
WALTER
You know Dude, I myself dabbled with pacifism at one point. Not in Nam, of course--

DUDE
And you know Smokey has emotional problems!

WALTER
You mean--beyond pacifism?

DUDE
He's fragile, man! He's very fragile!

As the two men get into the car:

WALTER
Huh. I did not know that. Well, it's water under the bridge. And we do enter the next round-robin, am I wrong?

DUDE
Just, just take it easy, Walter.

WALTER
That's your answer to everything, Dude. And let me point out--pacifism is not--look at our current situation with that camelfucker in Iraq--pacifism is not something to hide behind.

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