The Big Lebowski

2008 author’s note: Looking back on this review 10 years after I wrote it, I was struck by two things. First, it’s funny to see how much time I was spending trying to work through my ambivalent feelings about the Coens — it seems to come down in part to a performance style that I find grating. Second, I gave this thing a B+? Man, I used to be a hard-ass.

In Jeff Bridges, the Coens have finally found a performer whose offhand presence is a perfect foil for their own loping eccentricity. As one Jeffrey Lebowski, Bridges conjures up the laid-back California counterpart to the uptight shock jock he played in The Fisher King. More solipsist than narcissist this time around, Lebowski is a casual ne’erdowell who describes himself in the mythic third person as “the Dude.”

It sounds like another precious Coen brothers gimmick, but in Bridges’ hands it becomes a hysterical running joke. Bridges and his co-stars — including John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and Julianne Moore — are basically handed a bunch of cliches, running the gamut from artsy, overreaching feminist to psycho Vietnam vet, and asked to run with them. In this case, it works. Laced with stunning visuals, a winning sense of the absurd, and the occasionally hysterical set piece, The Big Lebowski is a left-handed marvel. By refusing to take any of this seriously, the Coens shake the self-importance that dogged Barton Fink and Fargo and, to a lesser extent, Blood Simple.

At the same time, this is serious filmmaking — scrupulous in cinematography, pacing, and performance. The whole adds up to something less than do the showpiece parts, but The Big Lebowski is as artful a feature as we’re likely to see all year. At its best, it comes tantalizingly close to brilliance.

There’s a crime drama lurking in here somewhere, and the noirish plotline is satisfying enough. Early on, Lebowski, or “the Dude,” is visited by a pair of thugs who shove his head in the toilet and demand that he pay a debt owed by his wife, Bunny. The unmarried Dude (the toilet seat is up, he points out) insists that they’ve got the wrong Lebowski. The thugs realize their mistake and leave, but not before one of them urinates on the Dude’s rug. Chagrined at the loss of his rug (“it anchored the place”), the Dude visits Pasadena millionaire Jeff Lebowski (the “big” Lebowski), an aging, wheelchair-bound philanthropist (David Huddleston) with a foundation for underprivileged children. The reason for this meeting? The Dude demands that the stranger, whose debt the two thugs were trying to collect, replace his rug. No sympathy is forthcoming, but the Dude winds up embroiled in a plot involving a kidnapping, a lost suitcase of money, and a trio of nihilists threatening to cut off his “johnson.”

The Dude’s powerful sidekick throughout the dangerous proceedings is his friend Walter (John Goodman), an ex-soldier (and unlikely Jew) with an attitude problem who packs a pistol at the bowling alley. Harry and the Dude are joined in league play by Donny (Steve Buscemi), who tries hard to know what to say but is most often cut off at the knees by Harry’s thunderous “Shut the fuck up, Donny.”

Their nemesis at the lanes is a lanky, bowling ball-licking, purple-clad, anally fixated hotshot named Jesus (John Turturro). It sounds a little tedious on paper, but it’s raucously entertaining. Goodman and Bridges play exceptionally well off each other, delivering the Coens’ studiously casual banter with grace and precise comic timing. Ace cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo, Kundun) shoots a bowling lane the way Martin Scorsese shot pool tables in The Color of Money. It’s a paean to middle American pastimes as only the Coens can imagine them, and for once, it succeeds in making everyday rituals seem almost mythic. In the latter half of the movie, when the Dude is slipped a NyQuil cocktail, he falls into a dream patterned after the opening sequence of a flamboyant softcore porn/bowling movie musical (Gutterballs, it’s called) set to the tune of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”. It’s ludicrous and it’s giddy and it’s totally uncalled for in this context. It brings the movie to a screeching halt, and it’s one of the best things I’ve seen on the screen in ages. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know this sequence is coming, but it’s still a delight to watch it unfold in all its jaw-dropping glory. (Best bit that you’re unlikely to see anywhere else: the shot from inside the bowling ball looking out.)

Outside of the bowling world, the cast of characters includes Julianne Moore as Maude, unlikely stepdaughter to the young Bunny, and Ben Gazzara as Bunny’s chief creditor, a playboy pornographer named Jackie Treehorn. (Celebrity spotters take note that Flea of Red-Hot-Chili-Peppers fame gets to play one of the nihilists, and singer Aimee Mann cameos as a digit donor.) Unfortunately, the mannered performances of these folks — especially Huddleston and Philip Seymour Hoffman as his right-hand man — are more typical of what’s irksome about Coen films rather than what’s magical about them. To boot, there’s little to no internal clarity of character or motive, which means the film has to get by on jokes, visuals, and idiosyncracies. I dislike some of Lebowski‘s more deliberate quirks, such as the grizzled cowboy (Sam Elliot) who appears out of nowhere to narrate the tale, or the whole vagina thing (no further comment), since they add dead weight to what’s at heart a very slender comedy. On the other hand, I wouldn’t give up the musical number for anything, so who’s to say which digressions are expendable?

Still, at 90 minutes, Lebowski could have been the kind of flick that takes you by surprise and leaves your head spinning. At 117 minutes, well, it feels even longer. The difference between The Big Lebowski and Fargo — two movies about largely innocent characters who learn how to play and win against the wicked — must, to some degree, reflect the Coens’ views on the big city and on the Midwest. (Example: Fargo‘s wood chipper left me cold, but the ferret-in-the-bathtub bit from Lebowski had me convulsing with laughter. (Or was it a marmot?)) Watching Fargo, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film was relying on its super-cool “irony” to avoid dealing with real people. Marge Gunderson may have been a memorable comic creation, but I could never believe in her as a thinking, breathing human being, which I thought the rather limp story could have used, especially if it wanted us to believe that the Coens really envied her worldview.

I don’t believe in the Dude, either, but I think he helps close up the ironic distance between the Coens and their material. As Bridges conceives him, he’s genuinely funny, even wonkily admirable in his tongue-tied, laissez faire attitude toward the world. He’s also a seen-it-all denizen of Los Angeles, the real world in which the Coens ply their decidedly unreal trade. There’s some stuff in the screenplay that invites further analysis, but I’m going to leave all that alone because I want badly to believe that this film really is a lark. I’ll continue to believe that Lebowski is like After Hours as scripted by Raymond Chandler. It’s about using people, getting used by them, and trying to figure out which is which. It spends less time getting its geographic bearings on some abstractly snowy landscape and more time happily observing assorted lives bouncing off one another in the chilly Los Angeles night. And it’s really, really funny. That’s the main thing. B+ A


Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Coen and Ethan Coen
Cinematography by Roger Deakins
Music by Carter Burwell
Starring Jeff Bridges and John Goodman
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1
USA, 1998

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