Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Films of the Coen Brothers: The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Big Lebowski (1998)
Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Starring: Jeff Bridges (Jeffrey Lebowski - The Dude), John Goodman (Walter Sobchak), Julianne Moore (Maude Lebowski), Steve Buscemi (Theodore Donald 'Donny' Kerabatsos), David Huddleston (Jeffrey Lebowski - The Big Lebowski), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Brandt), John Turturro (Jesus Quintana), Sam Elliott (The Stranger), Tara Reid (Bunny Lebowski), Peter Stormare (Nihilist #1, Uli Kunkel / 'Karl Hungus'), Flea (Nihilist #2, Kieffer), David Thewlis (Knox Harrington), Ben Gazzara (Jackie Treehorn), Jon Polito (Da Fino).

The Big Lebowski would easily make my personal list of the 10 funniest films ever made. Like other films that would probably make that list, film somehow manages to be funny every time you see it. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched The Big Lebowski at this point in my life – I’d say, at least 15 – and yet every time I watch it, I cannot help but laugh pretty much from beginning to end. Comedy is subjective of course – my wife watched the first hour of the film and hated it so much she turned it off. So be it – she doesn’t know what she’s missing.

The film is basically like a Raymond Chandler detective story, yet instead of a brilliant Philip Marlowe as our protagonist, we get Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Brides) – an aging hippie in early 1990s Malibu. He is unemployed – and has been for a while. Where he gets his money, I have no idea. He spends his days in a blissful haze of marijuana smoke and the buzz he gets off White Russians. The only place he has to be is the bowling alley. His teammates are Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) – also a relic of the 1960s, but just about the complete opposite of The Dude – a crazed, militaristic Vietnam vet and gun nut, and Donny Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi) – who barely gets to say a word, because The Dude pretty much ignores every he says, and Walter keeps tell him to shut the fuck up. Donny doesn’t care – as long as he’s throws rocks, he’s happy to be in their company.

Then one day two men enter the Dude’s apartment and demand the money. The push his head into the toilet, and tell him that since his wife owes money to Jackie Treehorn that means he owes money to Jackie Treehorn. One of them – who the Dude will refer to as the Chinaman for the rest of the movie – even pees on his rug, which is a shame because it really ties the room together. There is a problem of course – The Dude isn’t married. He figures out that these two must have been looking for the other Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston) – a millionaire philanthropist, with a young trophy wife named Bunny (Tara Reid). The Dude goes to see the other Lebowski in the hopes of being reimbursed for the rug – and thus gets involved in a complicated plot that involves kidnapping, nihilists, a strange performance artist (Julianne Moore) her stranger friends, a bowler named Jesus, pornographers and interpretive dance. Through it all, Sam Elliot – wearing a cowboy hat and perhaps having the best mustache in movie history, acts as our guide and narrator – although sometimes even he loses his train of thought.

The film was not a big hit back in 1998 – grossing only about $17 million in North America. But it has gone on to become one of the biggest cult movies of all time, inspiring annual conventions, a ton of merchandise, and a host of books on how to live like Lebowski and the philosophy of the Dude. Why does the movie touch people like this? Perhaps it’s because the Dude seems so contented throughout the movie – even when things seem to be at their bleakest. Like many Coen protagonists, The Dude spends the film getting tormented – he has his face shoved in a toilet, he gets beat up, he has a coffee cup thrown at his head, he’s drugged more than once, he has his car stolen and trashed, then gets it back only to have it trashed some more and eventually get set on fire, and pretty much everyone he meets thinks he’s an idiot. And yet, The Dude abides. He soldiers on, and finds happiness where he can. I imagine him listening to the monologue by Frances McDormand at the end of Fargo and being in complete agreement. Jeff Bridges is a great actor who has delivered any number of great performances in his career that pretty much started at birth, but to many he’ll always be associated with The Dude. If it’s not his greatest performance – and I would argue that it is – it’s certainly his most iconic one.

Not to be outdone, Coen regular John Goodman delivers a performance of hilarious, crazed intensity as Walter. The Coen’s based his character on writer/director John Milius, and Goodman nails the look and mannerisms of the famed right wing artist. You wouldn’t think that The Dude and Walter would get along so well – they seem like complete opposites politically, but the two never really discuss politics – although the Dude does get exasperated when Walter keeps bringing up Vietnam (my favorite Vietnam related line “This is bowling, not Vietnam, Smoke. There are rules”). The rest of the cast – from Buscemi to Huddleston to a Julianne Moore, with a strange accent, to John Turturro warning everyone “Not to fuck with the Jesus”, to Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lebowski’s sycophant of an assistant, to Ben Gazzara as a pornographer, to Davis Thewlis, in a one scene performance of pure absurd brilliance, are also spot on. The Coens have a way of figuring out the perfect actors for their films, and are seldom wrong.

As we have come to expect from the brothers as well, The Big Lebowski is endlessly visually inventive – from the exaggerated production design on The Big Lebowski’s house, to the bizarre, drug induced dream sequences/musical numbers, to a shot that quite literally looks out from inside a bowling ball, the Coens do not seem to be happy unless they are endlessly trying something new. Their meticulous attention to detail and their control freak ways may seem at odds with a story as loose as the one here – but I think it helps to keep the movie from going too far over the top. For what The Big Lebowski is, it’s pretty much perfect.

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