Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Quirky Blend Of Bowling And Hostage Negotiations, The Big Lebowski Is Rightfully A Cult Classic!

The Good: Funny, Decent acting, Interesting characters
The Bad: Too often weird for the sake of weird (lack of purpose)
The Basics: Delightfully odd, The Big Lebowski is the film Thomas Pynchon would have made and has a visual style that helps define the greatness of the Coen Brothers.

I was clearly too young when I first watched The Big Lebowski. I know I saw it back after college, but I had no particular affinity (or even memory) of it. So, when the opportunity came for me to watch The Big Lebowski today, I leapt upon it. I think it might be ironic that the day I panned one of Thomas Pynchon’s latest novels, Against The Day (reviewed here!), the highest compliment I can give The Big Lebowski is that this film has a Pynchonesque quality to it. Thomas Pynchon is known for being quirky and meandering and in writing and directing The Big Lebowski, Joel and Ethan Coen create something distinctive that is the most Pynchonesque film I have yet seen.

Like a comedic, less violent version of Payback (reviewed here!), the Coen Brothers blend the story of a man looking for far, far less than others want or expect out of him (like Porter in Payback going through his ordeals for vastly less than most of the gangsters expect, the Dude is really just out to get his rug replaced in The Big Lebowski) with a ransom which may or may not be real. Including dream sequences, quirky characters, and surprisingly good characters, the only real problem with The Big Lebowski might well be that there are so many different collectible versions of the DVD/Blu-Ray and it is sometimes weird for the sake of being weird as opposed to being a cohesive story. It is, honestly, not much of a problem at all.

The Dude (Lebowski) returns home from buying half and half to get his face shoved in his toilet by thugs who demand to know where the money is. One of the thugs urinates on his rug and when they realize that he is not the millionaire that they are trying to shake down, they leave. Inspired by his bowling buddies, the Dude searches for the real Lebowski to get compensation for his rug getting urinated upon. After taking a rug from Lebowski’s house and going bowling (where his rule-bound friend, Walter, draws a gun on an opposing player), the Dude is summoned back to the Lebowski mansion.

Mr. Lebowski’s wife, Bunny, has been kidnapped and Lebowski wants the Dude to act as a courier for the ransom. When talking with Walter, the Dude posits that the rich girl has not even been kidnapped, which Walter decides must be true. Walter throws a false bag – without the ransom money – to the kidnappers, queering the deal. The Dude quickly finds himself threatened by Lebowski, Lebowski’s daughter (who is older than his new wife), a pornographer who Bunny owes money to and, in a completely different context, a pedophilic bowler named Jesus. In hunting down the money, which has been stolen, the Dude is tailed, menaces a fifteen year old and does battle with corrupt cops.

Like a Pynchon novel, The Big Lebowski is populated by ridiculous characters who represent archetypes and agendas that allow the ridiculous plot and plot turns to seem entirely plausible. The Dude is a former hippie, conscientious objector, whose big accomplishment is being an occasional bowler. He essentially becomes a detective due to the apparently wealthy Lebowski and works for a cut off three different people with agendas for the return of Bunny Lebowski. Walter is a psychopath who claims to observe the Sabbath and plays up his status as a veteran.

Thugs and nihilists go up against the Dude and Walter in a caper that includes ransom demands when there is no hostage, a person who cuts off a toe, and a fight that involves one man biting off another man’s ear. Impressively directed by Joel (and, in an uncredited capacity, Ethan) Coen, The Big Lebowski includes dream sequences complete with big dance numbers that have a trippy feeling that is fun to watch. In fact, outside David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (reviewed here!), it is hard to recall a film that so purely captures the blend of drug trips, reality, and dreams as The Big Lebowski. Unlike something like Mulholland Drive, though, The Big Lebowski actually tells a story and in that way, it makes for a eminently satisfying film.

In other words, outside the simple visual styling and the quirky characters, The Big Lebowski is enjoyable because things happen and there is a story to be pieced together. Like the best of Pynchon’s novels, there is substance and themes in The Big Lebowski presented in a way that has a sense of poetry. It is easy to see how the film became a cult classic.

Julianne Moore has a wonderful supporting performance as Maude Lebowski, where she is unlike any other performance she has had. Similarly, the exceptionally brief appearance by John Turturro as Jesus (who the previews might make one suspect has a substantial role in the film) performs with a wonderful sense of physical comedy, a looseness that makes him ridiculous in a way that he plays nowhere else. Steve Buscemi (Donny, the other bowling partner of the Dude), David Huddleston (Lebowski), and Philip Seymour Hoffman all have decent supporting roles that help play off the ridiculousness of Jeff Bridges as the Dude.

John Goodman is predictably wonderful as Walter. The real surprise, though, is Jeff Bridges as the Dude. Bridges, who frequently takes serious roles where he is able to play dignified, is incredible as the slacker, the Dude. Slouching through most of the movie, he presents the character as smart, but also incredibly able to reason at key moments and makes the whole role seem plausible. Bridges has a great physical presence and his expressions of surprise and disappointment are well-played.

The Big Lebowski is funny, clever, and well-presented and well worth watching for anyone who has an appetite for quirky and surprisingly smart.

For other works with Sam Elliott, check out my reviews of:
Did You Hear About The Morgans?
Ghost Rider
Thank You For Smoking


For other film reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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