THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998) – Classic movie review Paul Laight
“The Dude abides. I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners. Shoosh. I sure hope he makes the finals.” THE STRANGER
The Coen Brother’s comedy-noir-musical par excellence The Big Lebowski (1998) is a film that shouldn’t really work. A hybrid of various genres with the spine of Raymond Chandler’s classic noir novel The Big Sleep; skin and bones of upper-class, artistic and counter-cultural characters; clothes of idiosyncratic narrative twists; all the while tattooed with chimeric pop references and eclectic soundtrack. But you know what? It does work. Brilliantly! Because it has a big, big heart. A heart transplanted via the screenplay and direction of arguably the most inventive filmmakers of a generation, Joel and Ethan Coen. A heart given its’ beat by Jeff Bridges laid-back, insouciant career-defining performance as Jeffrey ‘The Dude’ Lebowski.
The Big Lebowski opens with tumbleweed drifting across the beachy Los Angeles landscape as the Sons’ Of the Pioneers warble, appropriately enough, Tumbling Tumbleweeds on the soundtrack. The Stranger’s (Sam Elliott) warm laconic tones establish time (circa 1991) and place and then introduce us to “quite possibly the laziest man in Los Angeles County” – our ‘hero’ – The Dude. But from the moment two thugs piss on the Dude’s rug, the gentle opening gives way to a series of hilarious misunderstandings and scenes involving: double-crosses, ‘kidnappings’, car-beatings, bowling, toe-cutting, naked art, doped-up musical numbers and purple lycra jump-suited pederasts.
The Big Lebowski – like many Coen Brothers’ movies – is one that actually gets better with further viewings. On first watch there is so much going on, so many elements, surprises and odd characters that’s it’s difficult to know what to make of it. It’s essentially a comedy with a noir plot which borrows heavily from Raymond Chandler’s aforementioned The Big Sleep but the plot is very loose and really just a way for the Coen Brothers to showcase their latest band of eccentrics. Indeed, as with Fargo (1996) – where the criminals are revealed from the start – the Coens’ screenplay is not interested in following genre convention. The Big Lebowski reveals a major plot point (Bunny has kidnapped herself) early in the film, thus, subverting the conventions of the detective story so reliant on mystery and intrigue.
Jeff Bridge’s ‘Dude’ is arguably one of the most memorable characters the Coen Brothers have created. He is the ultimate dope-smoking slacker and probably the most unlikely ‘detective’ in cinematic history. His relationship with Walter, and the hapless Donny, anchors the movie in a heightened, yet believable reality. These are just three working class guys chewing the fat while bowling who happen to fall into a manic misadventure involving the kidnapping of a rich man’s trophy wife. Obviously, the term ‘working class’ is used loosely where the Dude is concerned, as he doesn’t actually work. Together, Dude, Walter and Donny resemble a postmodern Three Stooges going from one crazy situation to another and while their hilarious and antagonistic dialogue at the Bowling Alley add real fizz to the story.
The roles were all written specifically for Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi and in many scenes Bridges actually wore his own clothes. Even more interesting The Dude is apparently based on a real-life character, independent film promoter Jeff ‘The Dude’ Dowd; who helped the Coen brothers secure distribution for their debut feature noir-horror, Blood Simple (1984). Meanwhile, John Goodman is quoted as saying Walter Sobchak is his favourite film role and who can blame him. Walter is a gift of a role with Goodman playing this loose cannon, Vietnam vet, “I can get you a toe, Dude” nutter brilliantly. Walter, like the Dude, is inspired, in part, by a real life person – the bombastic film director John Milius. Lastly, Steve Buscemi, as “Shut the fuck up!” Donny excels in a much understated performance; unselfishly playing the permanently bemused straight guy.
The Coens take these three social underachievers – the Dude and Walter especially – and contrasts them with a whole host of misfits, from the Dude’s dancing landlord, marmot-wrangling German nihilists to one of the most incredible individuals from all Coen Brother’s movie canon. I am of course talking about Jesus Quintano played with joyful abandon by Coen cast regular John Turturro. “The Jesus” receives a grand introduction – for a minor character with no bearing on the story – in purple, in slow motion with the Gypsy Kings’ version of Hotel California blasting over the soundtrack. And it is in this moment that you realise that you are watching a film of unbridled fun. The fact Jesus is also a “flasher” adds a guilty edge to the scene. Should we be laughing at this ridiculous character who happens to be a pederast?
Within the subtext of the screenplay there are elements of a class struggle between the Dude, his Musketeers and the upper class LA types represented by The Big Lebowski (David Huddleston) himself and his daughter Maud Lebowski (Julianne Moore). But it is not the Coen Brothers’ intention to comment on such socio-political conflict; merely an opportunity to create humour from such contrasting styles of people. Throughout the film the Dude finds himself a dupe or conduit in the underhand plans of the rich. But he’s either knocked unconscious, drunk on White Russians or so doped up that any potential drama is undercut with a sense of the ridiculous. Indeed, in another odd plot twist the Dude is ‘seduced’ by staunch feminist Maud, so she can conceive a child but have nothing to do with the father. Conversely, much of the conflict is undermined by unconventional characters and there is little palpable danger even when Dude is being attacked in the bath by the nihilistic ferret. Only poor Donny’s heart attack lends the movie a sober and poignant end but it’s a sense of reckless fun rather than suspense or danger that permeates the movie.
Overall, The Big Lebowski is an alternative comedy from filmmakers taking chances and playing with genre expectations in the most unexpected ways. It has no intrinsic meaning and makes little sense narrative wise. Flowered with coarse and colourful language (fuck is said over 250 times) it’s a rich postmodernist movie which references or pastiches everything from: Busby Berkeley musicals to porn movies, Krautrock, film noir, progressive rock, TV show Branded (1965), The Eagles, avant garde painting and even has time to feature a cameo from Saddam Hussain in one of the bizarre musical dream sequences. After the critical and commercial success of Fargo the Coen’s delivered the offbeat The Big Lebowski to confused critics and relative commercial failure. While The Big Lebowski made $27million worldwide ($15million dollar budget) it is a cult movie in the true sense of the word and in The Dude it has one of funniest characters ever committed to celluloid. But as the man himself said, “that’s just my opinion, man.”