Previous installments of the “separated at draft” series have dissected characters to demonstrate how strikingly similar archetypes thrive across different narratives. For today, I took an step beyond (or sideways) and compared two movies. One’s a structural, disjointed mess, celebrated for its bizarre tone shifts, unevenly paced plot and ham-fisted dialogue that is instantly quotable and memetic. The other is The Room.
The Big Lebowski and The Room intersect at precise character ideas and take them to diametrically opposite directions in terms of plot and development
and quality. The experience is akin to watching the same movie in two Distaff universes.
Different stories, different production values…same feelings? Let’s take a look.
(Spoilers for The Big Lebowski and The Room ensue)
What a story, Mark.
The plot is inconsequential to both movies, intentionally so for The Big Lebowski…and maybe less so for The Room.
Both pile up several plot threads and cameos that are either resolved anticlimactically or could have been avoided entirely if characters had behaved sensibly. Granted, the Coen Brother’s cred insures a higher willingness towards critical examination than Tommy Wiseau’s magnum opus, but the film is clearly a parody that plays off the tropes and conventions of film noir and kidnapping mysteries. The Room was aping for a genuine melodrama, despite Wiseau’s assertions that the film was always meant as a black comedy, a claim to which audiences responded with a resounding “We don’t care, we love it”.
But the longer you immerse yourself in both films, the harder it is to tell which wears its stupidity more proudly.
Naturally, when a film forsakes its plot, it’s up to the characters to convey the themes and emotion. They both have an ample supporting cast, mostly built on cameos, each memorable in their unique ways. But I’ll keep the comparison to the main players.
Each film’s lead is an idiosyncratic man who is loved and revered by their close ones. The surface similarities include long hair, being devoted to a ball game and their unique tastes in interior decoration:
They stand on opposite social classes.
Johnny works at a bank and is wealthy enough to pay for his surrogate son’s tuition and provide for his future wife, while cracking cases to save the bank money. In his downtime (i.e. his entire onscreen time), he lends a sympathetic ear to his crazy friends’ stories and monetary needs. Lest it be unclear, Johnny’s a wonderful man.
Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski is a cynical, jaded bum who write checks for 67 cents. The film starts with his quest to replace a rug that was peed on (it’s quite a long, irrelevant story). He can’t replace, nor wash it (and it really tied the room together). Because he also has a lot of free time, he’s always willing to hang out and support you in any way, whether to attend your one-man dance recital or delivering your wife’s ransom money.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how both are scripted as foils to Jesus himself.
Well, tangentially. The Dude’s a bowler and Johnny probably has a skeevy past. They’re also quite reminiscent of the other Jesus (the guy with the cross). Each of them bears the insanity of their world and looks out for their close ones, only to be let down. Yet one of them survives and takes it easy for us and the other doesn’t.
Johnny’s fate will leave you in tears. The Dude abides.
What are these characters doing here?
Our supporting casts include a Best Friend who struggles with mood swings, counts of attempted murder and who causes more problems than they solve
a young gentleman who’s on the receiving end of tragic shenanigans,
an overbearing parent whose health problems may or may not be feigned (would anyone care?)
and a ruthless woman who uses sex with our protagonist to achieve their means.
Denny and Donny are the Tagalongs, the little people who cast a background for the bigger ones. Neither seems to know what’s going on most of the time and are opaque to us: Donny, by virtue of expressing no character or skill beyond being a bowling prodigy; Denny, by virtue of having issues to work through (somehow, Wiseau’s assertion that “he’s really retarded, a little bit” isn’t very enlightening).
One of the most dramatically satisfying moments in each film comes when the main characters protect our kid from a violent freak. The denouement establishes each film’s priorities: Denny is rescued from Chris-R, quits drugs and becomes a model citizen (or so we’re told). Donny dies due to a completely unrelated heart attack.
Mark and Walter could not be more perfect foils even if Wiseau and the Coens had exchanged notes (how would that conversation even go?)
Walter is irascible, struggling with PTSD (‘Nam, guys), and incapable of sustaining a conversation….yet he tries desperately hard to be a good soldier, helping the Dude in any way he can and enjoying a select few moments of lucidity.
Mark, by comparison, fancies himself the Straight Man, Johnny’s best friend, yet ultimately succumbs to Lisa’s temptation, tries to murder people for it and is incapable of sustaining a conversation.
Walter is adherent to the rules of his religion and sports conduct because they exist for a reason (this is not ‘Nam).
Mark often finds himself breaking the rules against his own will. This is all, of course, due to Lisa being a restless sociopath, not because Mark should be taking any responsibility for his actions, he’s just a guy.
Then we get to our female leads. Trite femme fatale aside, Maude and Lisa are Separated at draft in how close their scripting is to each other on paper.
They’re both unapologetic on their enjoyment of life and in how they’re using our beloved man guy (well, Maude more consistently so, Lisa goes back and forth a bit) and they both have complicated dynamics with their horrible parents. Then they mirror each other in perfect sequence:
Lisa is smothered by her overbearing mother; Maude is the real brains behind the fortune and is giving her father an allowance; Maude indulges in an Electra complex by hooking up with the Dude, who has the exact same name as her father, for the sole purpose of breeding; Lisa is the unwilling subject of Denny’s bizarre Oedipal complex and is using Johnny for his money.
The vital difference? One narrative puts the woman on top.
The little extras
At the heart of both films, lies an exploration of companionship and masculinity as social performance.
Renegade Cut’s video essay, “The Layers of Lebowski”, analysed the leitmotiv of castration as both a physical, very gendered threat to the Dude and as a representation. All male characters are either emasculated in some capacity or feel the need to assert it to compensate for their inadequacies.
The women (all two of them), by comparison, exercise their own sexual agency, are in control of their lives…and the men feel threatened by it (the idea!)
Maude creates an entire space where she can be herself and exert her autonomy in a way that few female characters get to enjoy even to this day: She’s allowed to be a pretentious bag of
dicks vaginas without the film making a fuss or putting her down for it.
Bonnie, who was meant as a trophy wife, is beyond the Big Lebowski’s control and authority (both already non-existent). For that matter, the Big Lebowski himself is closer in draft to Johnny than the Dude is. His life is an approximate idea of what The Room would have been like if Johnny hadn’t killed himself: He’d live emotionally crippled while his trophy wife sleeps around with his confidante.
Masculinity was also meant as a theme to explore in The Room from the very organic conversations that Johnny and Mark have. Illuminating gems as:
Oh man, I just can’t figure women out. Sometimes they’re just too smart. Sometimes they’re just flat-out stupid. Other times they’re just evil.
I’m sure Tennessee Williams would have been proud.
Sarcasm and sexism aside, it’s fascinating how (on a meta and in-universe level), The Room deals with the masculine need to keep womanhood in check, for Lisa to be a loving and submissive future wife, and how horribly the men fail at understanding her base humanity. It’s a struggle and ultimate indictment of fragile masculinity that, with different degrees of understanding and execution, runs in both films.
As a wrap-up, I feel obligated to justify this comparison. What is the relevance of a Big Lebowski/Room comparison, in our current media discussions?
Well, for starters, both movies have future nostalgic revisitings in the horizon: 2017 will see the release of Going Places, a Lebowski spin-off with John Turturro reprises his role as the Jesus, and The Masterpiece, James Franco’s adaptation of The Disaster Artist, Greg Sestero’s memoir/behind the scenes book.
The last time I didn’t know how to feel about an upcoming adaptation like this was The Last Airbender. Not a good omen. Hollywood’s obsession with remakes and reboots is now extending to the cult classics and the days ahead are uncertain.
Aside that, what drew me into this retrospective ramble was the eerie political dimension each movie had (and once again Wiseau’s film is unaware of its implications).
The Big Lebowski tangentially addresses the first Iraqi War and parrots George Bush Sr. (“this agression will not stand”). But rather than halting the story to deliver the critique, it lets it flow with the story like so many plot threads: It shows the eerie mundanity, where people will keep going to work and mind their own business when the world beyond is in flames. Materially speaking, what can the everyman do?
The Room came out in 2003 at an even grimmer time, which may or may not explain its cult success. Its singular mix of incompetence, laughable incompetence, sheer passion and faith in the strength of its words is still fresh and cathartic today. When media is devolving into acedia and the mainstream grows ever more cynical, we keep coming back to these movies.
This here is what ultimately inspired me to do this project: Understand how both movies, in their uniquely twisted ways, want to captivate the banal mundanity of life in all it’s beauty. Whether it’s the sudden death of that person you were accustomed to, or when you misplaced your underwear in your friend’s house because you broke in to have sex, life goes on. And it’s comforting to have that small space, in this case a movie, to take it easy for us viewers out there.
All images are courtesy of Universal Pictures, Wiseau Films, and NBC.