Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Big Lebowski

I wonder if there's any point in attempting to review The Big Lebowski (1998). From Joel and Ethan Coen, the film was the brothers' follow-up to their hugely acclaimed Fargo, but it merely came and went through theaters, not gathering much attention. In the 13 years since, it has caught on huge as a cult flick for its quirky characters and bizarre situations. And bowling.

Needless to say, The Big Lebowski is one of those movies endlessly quoted and revived by its fans. Either you're already absorbed by its charm and weirdness, or you've long ago dismissed it. My analysis probably won't sway anyone either way, but it's my blog, so I'm going to write about it.

On the eve of Operation: Desert Storm, as described by our narrator (Sam Elliot), Jeffery "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is likely the laziest man in L.A., a hippie content to smoke pot, drink White Russians, and bowl with friends Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), a Vietnam vet and Polish Catholic Jew, and Donny (Steve Buscemi), a meek imbecile who never gets a chance to utter more than a few words. The Dude shares the namesake of another Lebowski, a rich businessman (David Huddleston), and when a couple of thugs for a porno kingpin mistake the Dude for the Big Lebowski, they pee on his rug before realizing their error. Dude seeks retribution for his rug ("It really tied the room together, man."), and soon, he's drawn into a kidnapping scheme involving the millionaire, his trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid), his Bohemian artist daughter Maude (Julianne Moore), and an assorted collection of weirdos and creeps ranging from a trio of German nihilists (including Peter Stormare and Flea) to a Latino pederast named Jesus (John Turturro).

The best way to describe The Big Lebowski is a cross between a film noir spoof and a screwball comedy as filtered through the sensibilities of the Coens. The Dude is essentially a detective (albeit passive, often quite useless) who pieces together the mystery of what's going on and encounters shady businessmen, crooked cops, underworld crime bosses, and femme fatales. And like a film noir, the plot of The Big Lebowski is quite convoluted and full of twists: kidnappings, ransom, mistaken identity, etc. But whereas most film noirs work to tie everything together at the end with a big revelation, The Big Lebowski's big joke is that ultimately nothing comes together. None of the plot elements have anything to do with each other.

Of course, turning the plot into a big tease isn't enough to make the movie funny. The Coens achieve this by packing the film with an assortment of off-the-wall characters that can only exist in one of their movies, finding the perfect actors to portray them, and placing them in one crazy situation after another. Whether it's when the rug is soiled, the Dude being tortured by the nihilists with a ferret, or Walter attempting to intimidate a kid by smashing up his car, there's never any shortage of entertaining antics.

Then there are hallucinations the Dude experiences when knocked on the head. It what can only be described as surreal, a musical number (playing Kenny Rogers' "Just Dropped") occurs in which the Dude encounters Maude as a Valkyre and Saddam Hussein as a bowling alley clerk and is sent rolling through a cosmic bowling lane. Whoa.

Helping immensely is how distinct all the players are. This is a film to savor for its dialogue and mannerisms more than its story. The Dude is so mellow and laid-back, he's easily overwhelmed. Walter is crazed, still obsessed with Vietnam, likely to pull a gun on a fellow bowler for cheating ("This is not 'Nam. This is bowling. There are rules." I guess that's the only difference between the two), and always dragging the Dude into deeper trouble with his ideas. Everything between these two is golden; you wouldn't expect a pacifist burnout and an easily-enraged solder to be friendly, much less bowling buddies.

But at its heart, The Big Lebowski is about the reconciliation of the Flower Power generation with the Vietnam veterans due to the death of American innocence. Through a crazy series of escapades and misadventures, the hippy as presented by the Dude and the soldier as represented by Walter find themselves at last able to let go of the past and move on, at the cost of their innocent naivety as represented by Donny. They never appreciate having him until he's gone. (Whenever anyone asks what The Big Lebowski is about, this is what you should tell them.)

Who am I kidding? The Big Lebowski is great entertainment and a perfect cult film. With bizarre characters in strange encounters as only the Coen brothers can deliver, it's hilarious, and that should be enough for people. I find something new to appreciate in it each time I watch it. The Dude abides.

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