AS A WORKING film critic, I’m not fond of analyzing morality in films. Even though one of my outlets has an audience made up, ostensibly, entirely of Christians, it takes little time to realize that moral standards vary widely between denominations and individuals. For some, two “swear words” is enough to throw in the towel; for others, nothing short of Antichrist-style genital mutilation or the sheer idiocy of Bruno is worth dismissal.
So I approached The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers (Zondervan) with a little fear and trembling, and was relieved to realize this was not an evaluation or even a point-by-point deconstruction of the Coens’ worldview, but a compassionate and open-minded look at the “Coeniverse,” as author Cathleen Falsani terms it.
Given the author’s approach, I really wanted to like the book. I really did. I love the Coens’ movies, in all their dark, bizarre, more-or-less-outlandishly funny glory. When someone asks me to point to a perfect movie, I immediately single out No Country for Old Men.
And I love a writer who’s gutsy enough to write an entire book on such a difficult canon of work, one rife with recurring leitmotifs and significant themes and the biggest of the big questions about fate, chance, karma, and the meaning of life. The Coens’ most recent film, A Serious Man, pulls together these themes in a powerful, unnerving way, and as I watched it and wrote about it I was excited for a great interpretation of the canon.
But I didn’t like The Dude Abides. The fault lies not in Falsani’s writing (which is funny and cogent) or her topic. In the end, there’s just not enough to satisfy a Coen fan like me.
After the introduction (a useful look into the history of the brothers and overview of their work), each chapter begins with “the forest”—a brief summary of the plot—and then moves onto “the trees,” outlining in detail one of the Coens’ movies. Tidbits of trivia and theological resonances work their way into these narratives, some of which are downright fascinating (for instance, the Jewish concept of the lamedvavnik as applied to The Dude in The Big Lebowski).
But the spoilers! Oh, the spoilers. I admit that I haven’t seen some of the lesser work in the canon, and I was disappointed to have to just skim some chapters and try to avoid the plot summary. These are detailed beginning-to-end narrations of the plot; interesting and sometimes useful if you’ve seen the film, and bogglingly specific if you haven’t. This is not a book for the Coen newbie.
The final analysis of each film seems lacking, as well. Falsani, by her own admission, is going by the Dude’s principles—“it’s your opinion, man”—and applying her own highly subjective interpretation to each movie. But there is so much in the Coen oeuvre that she barely touches, characterizing films as cautionary tales, morality plays, and explorations of deep truths. I still have questions I want sussed out: for instance, what is up with the Coens’ penchant for vomiting characters (as Falsani mentions in passing)? How does the fact that No Country for Old Men is an adaptation, not an original screenplay, cause its worldview to contrast with some of the brothers’ other work? Why the obsession with cheating wives and ransom notes?
The Dude Abides isn’t bad at all; it’s just insufficient, at least for those who really love film. It doesn’t fail to live up to what it says it will do, but it just doesn’t feel like enough. On the other hand, it’s a goldmine for certain audiences—for instance, youth pastors or teachers looking for a way to help their students understand the theology of common grace through Hollywood will find some helpful conversation starters here. Because the book is published by Zondervan, it will probably reach a mainstream Christian bookstore audience, who may in fact benefit from understanding how God’s truth can shine through the work of those who don’t really believe in him.
But for the serious Coen aficianado, The Dude Abides simply isn’t enough. Bummer, dude.
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