Directed By Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring – Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore
The Plot – When Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (Bridges) is mistaken for a millionaire Lebowski (David Huddleston), two thugs urinate on his rug to coerce him into paying a debt he knows nothing about. While attempting to gain recompense for the ruined rug from his wealthy counterpart, he accepts a one-time job with high pay-off. He enlists the help of his bowling buddy, Walter (Goodman), a gun-toting Jewish-convert with anger issues. Deception leads to more trouble, and it soon seems that everyone from porn empire tycoons to nihilists want something from The Dude.
Rated R for pervasive strong language, drug content, sexuality and brief violence
– Coen’s off brand style of humor. What is so redeeming about the material used in “The Big Lebowski” is it’s unapologetic nature in such a lazy, practical execution with its audiences. That may sound like a negative, but I feel that for the godfather of stoner comedy movies, this really is a script that lives and breathes by its own rules, refusing to ever cater to any outsider audiences for the convenience of cross brand promotion. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a stoner to understand the humor, but just that the material itself doesn’t feel counterfeit when compared to the personalities and tone of the film that surrounds it. Aside from this, the laughs themselves remain consistent because of the total level of incompetence by the characters in trying to solve something much bigger and intelligent than what they can ever fathom, and it’s a complete and total testament to films like “Barton Fink” and “Fargo”, where we indulge in this world that personality-wise feels planets away from our own, yet thrives in a location of familiarity (Los Angeles).
– Dedicated performances all around. Goodman is easily my favorite in the film, emoting Walter, a Vietnam war veteran, with a nervous tick that eventually explodes into a volcano of untimely expression that forces him to stick out like a sore thumb in any environment he comes into. Bridges Dude is the role that people have tied to him for a lifetime. Everything from the structure of the speech patterns to the lack of coordination associated with the wardrobe, which Bridges himself brought to the set, masters a level of 20th century Taoism, where no one or nothing ruins the vibe of his careless demeanor that he wears proudly. When these two interact with one another, it makes for my favorite exchanges of the movie, often with Walter alienating himself from The Dude because of him taking matters into his own hands and often over-complicating a situation that is otherwise easy to maintain. Throw in a mumbling Steve Buscemi as the third tier to their bowling league trio, and you have a collision of throw polar opposite characters that bounce off of one another with the chemistry of soldiers stuck in battle. Likewise, Julianne Moore, David Huddleston, and the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman also chew up enough scenery to make their supporting roles beg for more screen time, all the while generating appearances that add another level of prestige to the Coen’s never-ending list of A-list celebrities who adorn their films.
– What conflict, man? I find it hilarious that The Dude is being pursued by a trio of Nihilists, a kidnapper, and a powerful businessman, yet the movie feels about as much urgency as a leaf blowing in the wind. Instead, the film values and focuses on the engaging friendships and good times over the events themselves, and it helps to further develop the characters while remaining faithful to the outline of dark humor that persists within this world. If you do find yourself engaged by the mystery of the conflict itself, that’s fine, as the first half of this movie conjures up a subtle noir genre structure, complete with Sam Elliot’s raspy overheard narration, unreliable characters, and The Dude being the gumshoe of sorts to solve the crime. The conclusion itself is kind of revealed with such a lack of impact, but as is the case in most noir crime movies, the most simple answer is often the correct answer.
– Dream team production ensemble. One thing I learned in my re-watch of this movie is the alliance of master Cinematographer Roger Deakins and True Detective musical maestro T-Bone Burnett coming together to solidify a presentation that is every bit as enchanting as it is fantastical. Deakins today mostly dabbles with the bleak and grit photography that have helped him attain a serenity within the darkness of his pictures, but here he is giving visual nuance to something so conventional as a bowling alley, and making it pop visually for all of the reasons we’re not used to. Long gone are the smoky atmospheres and mundane designs associated with the weathered lanes. They are replaced with the sleek shine of never-ending lanes, 60’s deco decal with all of its free-range color schemes, and fantasy musical sequences that bring an air of pageantry to the sport that it isn’t used to. Where Burnett comes in is assorting a collection of musical artists and songs that speak volumes to The Dude’s ‘Anything but the Eagles’ mentality. The Coen’s wanted Kenny Rogers and Creedence Clearwater Revival on the soundtrack, but everything else was left up to T-Bone, and boy what a presence he maintains on some of the best scenes in the movie. The music in “The Big Lebowski” very much feels like a character in itself, not just because of how the human characters acknowledge its presence themselves, but because of how it maintains the consistency and variety of each tonal intention. It’s the building blocks for two of the more notorious artists in their respective categories, and stands as a reminder of the star-making power that the Coen’s had.
– Snappy dialogue and banter. Perhaps the Coen’s greatest strength is the ability to get lost in the magnitude of every scene and predicament, all the while remaining faithful to the personalities of characters, so that one never outshines the other. An example is in the scenes where Jeffrey, Walter, and Donnie talk through Jesus’s pedophilia, only to remind you every step of the way through the conversation of the quirks and ticks of each respective character. In this instance, it’s when Donny asks “What’s a pederast?”, and Walter says “Shut the fuck up, Donnie”. Even though we as an audience are being presented new information about an entirely new character, the dialogue still stops to remind us who is telling the story, and it’s a halt that doesn’t feel annoying or redundant, instead adding more complexity to our investment in the exposition.
– An emerging voice. I’ve seen many surprising things in re-watches of films over the years, but the underlying social commentary that now seems painfully obvious in “The Big Lebowski” might be the one that takes the cake. There’s no easy way to say this, but it’s about the examination of modern day masculinity, by way of deconstructing classic cinema. The Coen’s are masters of anti-climatic endings, usually requiring the audience to look deeper in an area of the film that would otherwise be easily glossed over of the collection of scenes that don’t gel together in the way we expect them to. Looking at the film’s aesthetic, it’s impressive that so many of its themes and characters evoke familiar traits of classic film in male dominated genres. Think of the cowboy, the war hero, the bowling, and of course the obvious question uttered in the film: “What makes a man?” What the movie is doing here is deconstructing American masculinity while the question what remains once the shroud has been pushed aside. After all, one scene depicts the Nihilists threatening to cut off Jeffrey’s johnson if they have to come back, and the sentence is repeated in a way that echoes into the ears of audiences intentionally. What’s ironic is many of the men we see in the film are already emasculated in a figurative sense. For instance, the millionaire Lebowski only keeps up an appearance of a self-made man when in reality he is living on a monthly expensive from his self-made deceased wife, Walter is emotionally in chains to his ex-wife’s religion and pets, and The Dude himself is used by Maude as only a donor to her desire to be with child. On the latter, the women in the movie feel empowered and constantly one step ahead of men, all the while expressing that things are the way they are largely because of their own choices and not some tie between sexes that bonds each cultural change. I won’t go much further, as I feel that people should seek this movie out once more with these goggles on to see what becomes evident to them in the evolution of each respective sex, and what the Coen’s are trying to convey with regards to answering its one important question.
– A snowball effect of plotting. It’s funny when you consider that this whole conflict begins because a group of strangers urinate on The Dude’s rug, forcing him to seek out compensation from the man he believes to be responsible for it, and each ensuing step builds the stakes considerably worse for everyone involved. What’s effective about this angle is how easy the elevation in chess movements is to comprehend from both sides, all the while the movie’s tone and talented actors expressing the lunacy of such (honestly) juvenile circumstances. This allows the conflict to build alongside with the consistency in pacing from the narrative itself, keeping matters strategic and not jumping the gun because of how many times this conflict could’ve easily been solved if the millionaire Lebowski just hired an even halfway capable accomplice. It’s simplicity in matters that are otherwise complicated, and only speaks levels to the issues in our own society that gain momentum the longer they shift downhill.
– Redundancy tests the pacing of the third act. Without question, the final twenty minutes are the biggest struggle to get through in this movie, mainly because at this point the scenes are repeating the same kind of speech patterns and scenarios that we have already been through, at one point or another in the movie. In addition to this, the film is still introducing throwaway characters at a point when it should be wrapping respective subplots up, further prolonging interaction for the sake of a screenplay that never feels like it knows where to confidently wrap things up. The mention of the Bowling playoffs leave us with two pivotal questions: How could they be considered with only two players, and who won?
– Errors with the particular time setting. Considering the film takes place in 1991, at the edge of Desert Storm, there are far too many instances where the Coen Brothers overlook pivotal contradictions in continuity that soil the sanctimony of a particular time frame. Mid 90’s automobiles, later year model soda pop cans, Elvis Costello’s “My Mood Swings” which came out in 1997, and my personal favorite: a calendar on Francis’ desk that reads 1997 in plain sight. Anachronisms like these stand out as the one roadblock in the way of me fully immersing myself in the world that the Coen’s created, and with a thicker layer of confidence in the production detail of the film, the movie’s visual pallet would excel over the need to keep pointing these vital inconsistencies out.
– I understand that bowling is only a secondary importance in a film like this, but something that has always bothered me was how Donnie is the only one we know of for how good he actually is at the sport. Walter rolls a ball, but we don’t see the end result. Jeffrey, our main character and leader of this group, mind you, never throws a single ball in the movie. Is this a big deal on the weight or importance of the script? Absolutely not, but if it’s character integrity we’re going for, bowling is the most distinguishable common interest between this group, and for us the audience never given the ability to embrace it, makes the mention of them being a great team in the league that much more unbelievable because of it. A scene or two with Jeffrey hitting a strike would do wonders in silencing my doubts of this guy being a clumsy, bone-headed stoner, who were told to believe is this reputable bowler. Not buying it.
My Grade: 7/10 or B