Big Lebowski, The

Rating:

The Dude Abides

Main Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi

Directors: Joel Coen

Some movies are about something. You know, they have a dramatic tension, a moral focus, a story to tell. Other movies are about something. Sure, they have a story and all – be it delightful or disastrous, yet that story isn’t really why they exist at all. That story is there to frame the characters. It isn’t really a character study, or any kind of in-depth analysis of the characters and why they do the things they do. It’s more like a story that gives the characters something to do, somewhere to go. A place to be showcased and entertain us. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as fine an example of this type of storytelling as The Big Lebowski.

As a Coen brothers film, The Big Lebowski (1998) is, of course, nearly impossibly to neatly summarize. That’s a large part if its charm. But I’ll at least give it a shot. We first meet Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) as he strolls through the grocery store under the voice over narration of The Stranger (Sam Elliott – who has perhaps the best voice over narration voice in history, and a killer handlebar mustache). The Stranger is telling us of our Mr. Lebowski. Number one fact of life: nobody calls him Jeff Lebowski. He’s The Dude. Long hair, baggy clothes, laid back to the point of semi-consciousness. The Dude isn’t a conventional guy, no way. He’s The Dude. And he loves to bowl. He’s a bowling Dude. He even has a special Bowling Barrette to keep those flowing locks from interfering with his game.

The Dude has, by choice, an uncomplicated life. His employment is, shall we say, irregular. His apartment is modest. He likes to bowl and hang out with Vietnam veteran and chronically angry and inappropriate guy Walter (John Goodman) and quiet, dim and passive Donny (Steve Buscemi – you had to know he’d show up). All is good until The Dude is accosted, in his own home no less, by two utterly uncool men looking for some money owed by some guy named Jeffrey Lebowski. Or, more to the point, the wife of Jeffrey Lebowski. By the time The Dude convinces them that he is, in fact, The Dude, and not their Jeffrey Lebowski, a most unfortunate event has occurred. One of these gentlemen has peed on The Dude’s rug. That rug brought the whole room together, man.

The assault itself isn’t what really bothers the ultra laid-back Dude. It’s that rug. Walter concurs. Someone has to pay. And that someone is the other Jeffrey Lebowski. The Big Lebowski (David Huddleston in full on Mr. Potter mode). The Big Lebowski is deaf to the logic of The Dude. The Dude can’t be bothered with his speeches. But The Dude gets his rug.

Soon enough, The Big Lebowski comes looking for The Dude, via his assistant, Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman with a giant, hilarious stick up his……..you get the idea). It seems that Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid – who thankfully has only a few lines), wife of the Big L, has been tragically kidnapped, and The Dude is desperately needed to assist in the rescue. The Dude can roll with that, however little sense it actually makes. He’ll get a little cash for a ransom drop. How hard can that be? Cool. Too bad he chooses to let Walter come along. Too bad not all is as it seems. Too bad this kidnapping is more complex than the human genome. Too bad all this has to happen right before a big bowling tournament. Very uncool.

The remainder of the story takes us on a merry ride with The Dude and his supporting cast of lunatics. Along with Walter and Donny, who under other circumstances would be plenty, we also get Julianne Moore as Maude Lebowski, daughter of the Big L and naked flying artist with a wish only The Dude can fulfill. We get a porn king, a troop of nihilists, and The Big L in many different modes. And we get, in possibly the funniest cameo appearance in recent history, John Turturro as Jesus Quintana, arch rival bowler. We first meet Quintana as he pulls up his florid purple socks, which of course match his florid purple polyester outfit. All of this is topped of by a hairnet that is pulled tight and made into a pseudo ponytail. He talks trash, bowling style, and has this unbelievable exaggerated swagger. He is absolutely hilarious.

But it all really comes down to The Dude. The Dude is not really a deep guy. He’s not really an ambitious guy. He’s not really a guy with any direction. He’s not really a suave guy. But he’s a cool guy. A self-possessed guy. A shallow guy. A sloppy guy. Often a stoned guy. He’s just, simply, The Dude. He isn’t stupid, he didn’t just happen into this life. This is what he chooses. He’s good-hearted, good-natured and loyal. And he has far more depth than his general demeanor would indicate, but he chooses when and where to let that show. He lives his life from moment to moment. And that’s the way he wants it. He’s not searching for more, grasping for the unattainable. He’s content. He’s all about reacting to the situation at hand and moving on. In one scene, he is distracted by the lovely Mrs. L, yet these things don’t rule him. He will certainly take advantage of opportunities presented, but doesn’t go looking for them. Jeff Bridges is fantastic as The Dude. His speech is just a little slow, his actions never hasty or rushed. He moves in sort of an ambling dance to his own inner drummer. He strikes just the right balance between not giving a rat’s rump about much of anything and caring enough about the people around him to be a good human being. Bridges just slides into The Dude like the role was made for him. I can’t imagine anyone else playing this part.

The film is also brilliantly visually inventive. In two instances, The Dude is either knocked or drugged into unconsciousness, and his delusions while in such a state are wildly imaginative and absolutely fitting. Not to mention hysterically funny. Cinematographer Roger Deakins does a great job, not just in these two scenes, but throughout the movie, of providing fantastic visual backup for the crazy antics of the characters. The images of Maude painting are priceless.

Although this isn’t really the kind of movie where one would expect costuming to make a major impact, costume designer Mary Zophres deserves special mention. Each character is subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) dressed in a way that aptly reflects and enhances their image. Brandt in his uptight preppy-wear, Maude swathed in yards of fur, the nihilists in their black leotards. The Big L is decked out in pompous business suits or smoking jackets with the fabulous detail of the checkered lap blanket that completes his Mr. Potter look. Jesus Quintana, in that monochromatic purple polyester – the clothes do indeed make the man, and add immeasurably to that cameo. And The Dude. I don’t know that there has ever been a character that could so comfortably and effortlessly carry off baggy plaid shorts and giant pullover sweaters with sandals. He always looks as though he stirred his laundry with a giant wooden spoon and chose his clothing blindfolded. And he’s imperturbably comfortable in every last thing. The Dude dresses to suit The Dude. And it works for him. And of course there is the Bowling Barrette. Definitely one of the finest hair accessories ever to appear in a bowling movie. So kudos to Zophres for so perfectly capturing and enhancing this crazy bunch.

The supporting performances are, for the most part, solid as a rock. John Goodman never waivers from his PTSD, anger laden persona as Walter. He brings both a physical menace and an indefinable sweetness to the character that softens his over the top recklessness and makes The Dude’s allegiance to him understandable. Buscemi is a little bit wasted as Donny. He plays the part extremely well, but isn’t given much to do. His role is far smaller than that of Walter, but pivotal in its own way, and Buscemi does build enough of a likeable character for this to be believable and touching. Huddleston as the Big L is fine, but not spectacular. His is probably the least interesting role. It’s somewhat stereotypical, something that is definitely not true of the others. Hoffman is his usual brilliant self in his small role, simpering, sycophantic and as false as can be. Julianne Moore is adequate, but she doesn’t quite inhabit her character as fully as some of the others. I keep picturing the delightfully acerbic Ann Magnussen in this role. Then we have John Turturro, the marvelous John Turturro. This is an actor with enough skill to either completely dominate a scene doing a cameo as Jesus or fall into the background while playing a major character as he did in 13 Conversations About One Thing. As Jesus, he’s so far over the top that he’s a deliberate uber-caricature. It’s simply great fun to watch.

Writers Joel and Ethan Coen and director Joel Coen, as usual, serve up a wildly creative group of characters. The kidnapping story is amusing in its exaggerated complexity, contrasting nicely with the simple Dude. And in the end it’s The Dude that carries the day. And to think, none of it would have happened at all if they hadn’t peed on his fuckin’ rug, man. That thing brought the whole room together.

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