The Big Lebowski (1998)

big-lebowski-main

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Producers: Joel and Ethan Coen (Polygram, Working Title)

Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen (screenplay)

Photography: Roger Deakins

Music: Carter Burwell

Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reid, John Turturro, Sam Elliot, Philip Moon, Mark Pellegrino, Peter Stormare, Flea, Torsten Voges, Jack Kehler, Ben Gazzan

The Coen Brothers wrote The Big Lebowski about the same time as their Golden Palm winner Barton Fink (1991), and though they wanted to film it before Fargo (1996), they had to hold off because Jeff Bridges was tied up in Walter Hill’s Wild Bill and John Goodman was busy taping episodes for TV’s Roseanne. Instead, they went ahead on Fargo, an ultimate Oscar-winning success that legitimized the Coens as Hollywood power players. As a result, Lebowski became their much anticipated follow-up, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in Jan. 1998 to critics’ underwhelment. Peter Howell of the Toronto Star wrote, “It’s hard to believe that this is the work of a team that won an Oscar last year for the original screenplay of Fargo,” and true to such reviews, Lebowski earned not a single Oscar nomination. (C)

To this day, it has not yet caught on in the scholarly community of “important” best lists, partly because it was released in 1998 when most of these lists just started coming out. But a changing of the guard is underway, and the next generation (voices like USA Today Pop Candy blogger Whitney Matheson) is beginning to claim this one as a classic. The Big Lebowski has been called “the first cult film of the internet era” (A), and rightfully so. Voters have voted the film into the IMDB Top 250, and ranked it as high as #25 in the Empire readers poll, exactly one spot ahead of Citizen Kane (1941). Further proof lies in The Lebowski Fest, which began in Louisville, Ky., in 2002, and has since expanded to other cities, where cult fanatics celebrate the film by dressing up like The Dude, The Jesus and the rest of the gang (a la Rocky Horror). In this light, the book by Bill Green, Ben Peskoe, Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt, I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski (2007), seems a must-own generational handbook.

Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) answers to only one name: The Dude. He’s perpetuatlly unemployed, living in early ’90s Los Angeles in a dump of an apartment with a rug that “really ties the room together.” His only form of ID is a Ralph’s Value Club card, and his only form of entertainment is hitting up his two bowling buds, the passive Donny (Steve Buscemi) and the intense, rule-bent Walter (Goodman), a Vietnam vet with a flattop, chinstrap goatee and a gun in his bowling bag.

One day, The Dude returns home to find two men in his apartment, demanding money from him and pissing on his prized rug as a warning. Figuring he’s been confused for another Lebowski, The Dude visits the mansion of philanthropic millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski, known as “The Big Lebowski” (David Huddleston), to ask for reimbursement for the rug. But before long, The Dude is hired as a courier to deliver the ransom money for the millionaire’s trophy wife, Bunnie (Tara Reid), a task made impossible by the gung-ho interference of Walter, who’s convinced Bunnie kidnapped herself. Such meddling botches the transfer with the kidnappers, three German nihilists (Peter Stormare, Flea, Torsten Voges), leaving the cash sitting in The Dude’s trunk when his car is stolen.

It’s about at this time that he receives a call from Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), the millionaire’s sex-crazed daughter, who informs The Dude that the ransom money was dipped out of her father’s children’s fund, and she is willing to pay The Dude to recover the funds before police learn of the embezzlement. The Dude also discovers that Bunnie is in fact a porn star who owes money to porn director Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), confirming his suspicions of Bunnie’s self-kidnapping in order to repay her debt.

In the end, the plot has spiraled into a wild goose chase. But what a damn good yarn it is, even if it unravels right back to where we were in the beginning. All is far from lost, because we’ve had the experience of bumming around with these larger than life characters for two hours. With such a character-driven story, the load of The Big Lebowski falls heavily on the actors, who carry it with the greatest of ease. Goodman, for one, has never been funnier. If one were to make a highlight reel of memorably scenes in the movie, the thing would be covered with Goodman’s sidesplitting lines — “Shut the f*ck up Donny! You’re out of your element!”; “You’re entering a world of pain!”; “It’s the ringer, Dude;” “Shomer shabbas!”; “Is this your homework Larry? Do you see what happens when you f*ck a stranger in the ass?”; and, of course, “Donnie was a good bowler…and a good man.” A complete showstealer. That’s not to say the rest of the cast is any less effective. Moore is perfectly fetishistic; Reid the perfect cast for a spoiled nympho; Huddleston the embodiment of a Dick Cheney-like figure; Philip Seymour Hoffman consistently great as Lebowski’s butler schmuck Brandt; Stormare showing off a German accent he practiced while on the set of Fargo; Buscemi a sympathetic figure for once in the margins; and Turturro, who played in the Coens’ Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing (1990), a riot as the bowler Jesus, a greasy, ponytailed, bowling-ball-licking pedophile with a signature finger strap. “Nobody fucks with the Jesus.”

Then there’s The Dude, a bonified creation for the ages. The Coens cite several influences on the character, but mainly a man named Jeff Dowd, a member of the Seattle Seven who drank White Russians and was nicknamed “The Dude,” whom the brothers met while seeking distributors for their debut film, Blood Simple (1984) (D). The Dude is more than a character — he’s a lifestyle. He is the complete antithesis of The Big Lebowski, who yells to him, “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski! Condolences! The bums lost! My advice to you is to do what your parents did — get a job, sir!” In that light, it is no coincidence that The Dude chooses not to go by the name his parents gave him, a sort of Graduate rebellion against phony adult holys who claim to be do-gooders but are really dishonest liars, as The Big Lebowski proves to be. Viewers, especially young ones, connect with The Dude’s point of view, not necessarily because he is endlessly lazy, but because he represents a sort of malayze toward the corruption of the world, always finding a way to take it easy amidst the chaos. And right there as a counterpoint is Walter, telling him “Pacifism is not [the answer]…look at our current situation with that camel-fucker in Iraq.” Little did the Coens know that the political implications would remain so relevent a decade after their film was made.

Thus, the internet age has found all the more reason to embrace The Dude, ranking him #55 on Premiere magazine’s 100 Greatest Movie Characters, and ranking Bridges’s performance #90 in Premiere‘s 100 Greatest Performances. As Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Bridges finds a role so right for him that he seems never to have been anywhere else.” Indeed, he seems so natural in that robe, in those sunglasses, with those bloodshot eyes, listening to those CCR tapes. Some of the most enjoyable acting from Bridges comes when he tries to communicate just how clueless he is as to what the hell’s going on, saying things like “new shit’s come to light,” “there’s a lot of facets to this thing,” “a lot of what have yous,” “a lot of ins and outs.”

This sort of clueless, meandering feeling accounts for the film’s mixed reviews, as some critics praise the snappy dialogue, while others despiese the plotlessness and the vulgarity (variations of the f-word are used 281 times). Still, the Coens call themselves out on this, with the help of the film’s conscience, a narrator called The Stranger (Sam Elliot), who shares a drink with The Dude and asks why he must cuss so much. It’s an intentional vulgarity the Coens are aware of, just as they’re aware of their own plotlessness. The narrative structure recalls Raymond Chandler’s detective pulp novels, particularly those brought to the screen in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946) and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973).

But while Lebowski is Big Sleepish in its mansion visit, its nymphomaniacal daughter, and its uncovering of pornography rings, it does not build toward any one thing, only toward the revelation that it was all for naught. It seems the Coens, in their own weird way, want to send audiences on a wild goose chase as some sort of a personal challenge to see if they can entertain in spite of it. And they seem to revel in the idea of taking past mystery elements and mocking them for comedy –note the North By Northwest notepad shading revealing a crude image. Repeat viewings solidify the film’s worth, as you can then scrape away expectations of a plot and hone in the great comedic touches applied to each and every character.

Equally as troublesome for some viewers will be the Coens’ distinct visual style, and in the case of The Big Lebowski, perhaps their most visually arty, with the exception of The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). The look itself is full of wide-angle lenses and the night scenes display cinematographer Roger Deakins’ use of an orange sodium light instead of the usual moonlight blues (F). The choice itself isn’t over-the-head noticable, but like the oranges of The Dude’s rug, really ties the film together. In this “inspired, absurdist taste for weird, peculiar Americana – but a sort of neo-Americana that is entirely invented – the Coens have defined and mastered their own bizarre subgenre,” wrote Desson Howe of The Washington Post. “No one does it like them and, it almost goes without saying, no one does it better”. (B) It seems that the Coens, freed by the success of Fargo, approach The Big Lebowski with an experimentalist’s eye, like The Dude lying on the floor and looking up to see Maude’s upsidedown image, or his drugged face plant onto the floor, his cheek appearing to smack right down onto the camera lens. Most strange in this experimental mindset are the film’s two “acid flashback” sequences that occur in The Dude’s unconscious state.

The first features The Dude flying above L.A., Ebeneezer Scrooge style, as he chases his rug, whom Bunnie rides like a magic carpet. Suddenly, his hand appears attached to a bowling ball, which sends him plummeting down as if he never learned anything from Wile E. Coyote. Immediately cut to a ball return rack where a miniature Dude is being chased by a gigantic bowling ball (a la Indiana Jones) and then we enter the film’s coolest shot, a POV shot from the bowling ball’s perspective as it rolls down the lane. The shot was accomplished by mounting a camera on a device that Ethan Coen called “something like a barbecue spit,” and then dollying it along the lane (G). The second such sequence is all the more arty, opening with a sexually symbolic bowling pin separating two bowling balls with the title credits: “Jackie Treehorn Presents: Gutterballs.” In addition to an entire skyscraper of stacked bowling shoes, operated by Saddam Hussein in a quasi-nod to “Springtime for Hitler,” we get Bridges dancing down a checkerboard staircase, a trio of red-suited Stormares chasing after him with giant scissors, and Moore posing in a viking outfit. Surrounding them are a bunch of background dancers with bowling-pin headdresses, who form calidascopic Busby Berkeley formations and line a bowling lane with their spread legs as The Dude slides under them in an obvious homage to 42nd Street (1933).

What’s perhaps most striking about each of these acid sequences is the spot-on song selection, as Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me” fills the first and Kenny Rogers’ “(Just Dropped In) To See What Condition My Condition is In” covers the second. Throughout the film, the Coens demonstrate a keen musical sense in their soundtrack — The Gypsy Kings’ latino cover of “Hotel California,” The Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” Elvis Costello’s “My Mood Swings,” CCR’s “Run Through the Jungle” and “Lookin’ Out My Backdoor,” Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor,” and of course “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” by Roy Rogers & The Sons of the Pioneers. The song sums up The Dude’s very existence, playing at the outset of the film as the Coens’ camera drifts along the arid western ground to eventually look over a cliff and see contemporary Los Angeles. It’s almost as if the camera itself is the drifting tumbleweed before we actually see a real tumbleweed blowing across the streets of L.A., symbolic of The Dude himself, who drifts through the city like such a tumbleweed.

Buried in this whole tumbleweed business is the entire tone of the film and, fittingly, the Coens hit us with this from the very beginning. We are meant to drift through the movie like The Dude drifts through life. In this sense, go into the film with the relief of not having to get bogged down in the details. Just relax and enjoy the aimless drift, a story so “stupifying … you can die with a smile on your face without feeling like the good Lord gyped you.” There’s a point near the end of the film when The Dude and Walter enter a mortuary trying to buy an urn, and a Psalm is printed ever so subtly in the background — “As for man, his days are as grass / As a flower of the field, so he flourisheth / For the wind passeth over and it is gone.” The film is the Coens’ commentary on the futility of life, how quick it comes and goes, and how we are all but mere tumbleweeds blowing along its history and, like The Dude, should prop our feet up and “take it easy” whenever possible. Takin’ it easy is what such films are about, like sitting around with Joel and Ethan Coen and letting them tell us this entertaining story, one that never takes itself too seriously. Their voice is The Stranger’s, from his prologue ending in “Aw hell,” to his epilogue: “I guess that’s the way the whole darn human comedy keeps perpetuating itself, down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands of time until we — aw, look at me. I’m rambling again. Well, I hope you folks enjoyed yourselves. Catch you later on down the trail.”

Citations: 

CITE A: Russell, Will (August 15, 2007). “Hey Dude: The Lebowski Festival“, The Independent. Retrieved on 200708-17.
CITE B:  Howe, Desson (March 6, 1998). “The Big Lebowski: Rollin’ a Strike”, Washington Post.
CITE C: Howell, Peter (January 19, 1998). “Coens’ latest doesn’t hold together The Big Lebowski is more sprawling than large”, Toronto Star.
CITE D: Green, Bill; Ben Peskoe, Will Russell, Scott Shuffitt (2007). “I’m A Lebowski, You’re A Lebowski“, Bloomsbury, pp. 27.
CITE E: Bergan, Ronald (2000). “The Coen Brothers“, Thunder’s Mouth Press, pp. 188.
CITE F: Robertson, William Preston; Tricia Cooke (1998). “The Big Lebowski: The Making of a Coen Brothers Film“, W.W. Norton, pp. 41.
CITE G: Arnold, Gary (March 6, 1998). “Siblings’ Style Has No Rivals”, Washington Times.

This entry was posted in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.