The Big Lebowski is a difficult film for me to review. I have probably spent more time watching this movie than any other movie in existence, but yet, I cannot say that it truly ranks with the all time classics of cinema and maintain my editorial credibility here. From a plot point of view, it’s simply a tangled mess that collapses in on itself many times over. It’s based, loosely, on the classic novel and film, ‘The Big Sleep’ by Raymond Chandler, but instead of having the protagonists be ace detectives here, the Coen brothers decided it would be more interesting to use an out of touch middle aged slacker, and his peculiar collection of dysfunctional friends and acquaintances, and see what kind of mess they could make of things. The answer is…a pretty big mess indeed.
That’s not to say The Big Lebowski is not a very good, and even a great movie in some ways. I am giving it the full four stars here because our four star review scale does not allow half stars and I believe this film is closer to being a four star film than it is to being a three star one. However, even if it is not a “great film” in the sense of Casablanca or Citizen Kane, it is, in my humble opinion anyway, a very enjoyable and re-watchable film. What makes it more memorable than most, even films that may be technically better than it, is the colorful assortment of fascinating characters and a script containing more quotable dialogue than almost any other of its generation. The Coen brothers released this cult classic of a film right on the heels of their massively hailed critical blockbuster ‘Fargo’, and so at the time it was released most critics were probably expecting something of that same sort, which lead to the lukewarm reviews it received at the time. To be sure ‘The Big Lebowski’ is no ‘Fargo’, or’ Miller’s Crossing’, or ‘No Country For Old Men’. It instead belongs alongside other lighter hearted Coen Brothers movies such as ‘The Ladykillers’, and ‘Burn After Reading’, (although it is far superior to both of those films) as movies that were probably made more as a lark than anything else.
The main character, Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski is based on a real life friend of the Coens named Jeff Dowd, who frequents independent film gatherings and things of that sort, and whose biggest disconnect from the on-screen Dude is his more ‘aggressive’ personality, especially when it comes to championing films and other causes he represents. The movie Dude may have been more like this in his younger years, as he mentions in the film that he was politically active in his college years, but when we meet him in the events taking place in this film, he seems more concerned with matters such as mixing the perfect White Russian or getting stoned and listening to his ‘Credence tapes’ than anything going on in the outside world.
The Dude’s motto in life is ‘Take it easy’, although he most emphatically hates the f’n Eagles from whom that saying was recently popularized. Then one night, on the way back home from the local Ralphs, the Dude finds himself on the receiving end of a home invasion from a pair of most non-housebroken goons, who as fate would have it, have him mixed up with another Jeffrey Lebowski, one who happens to be a millionaire, whose trophy wife has gotten herself into a bit of debt trouble with some rather unscrupulous persons. So after discovering their error and deciding this Lebowski is not worthy of their time, these two aforementioned goons take it upon themselves to urinate upon the Dude’s favorite rug, the one that “really ties the room together”… and from thus our hero’s quest for redemption or a new rug at least, begins.
I would go deeper into the plot now, but upon second thought, that is really better left experienced, as it really cannot be coherently explained in any event. It is a complicated mess involving the aforementioned mistaken identity, a kidnapping that may or not be faked, a ransom that goes horribly awry, a trio of German Nihilists with a pet marmot on the rampage, a private detective in a VW Bug who trails the Dude half the movie, a briefcase with a million dollars, some dirty undies, a stolen car, a kid who is failing his history class, and his father, a famous TV writer who now resides in an Iron Lung, a pornographer with a grievance of his own tied into all this mess… oh yeah, and bowling! Confused yet? You should be.
Jeff Bridges, who plays the Dude in this movie, has long been one of my absolute favorite actors. He has an entire career’s worth of classic roles and marquee performances. He is this generation’s ‘Robert Duvall’ in a sense, an actor’s actor that can lose himself inside any character and make the audience go along for the ride, usually with very enjoyable results. Bridges supplied most of his own clothes for this movie. Most, if not all of the flip flops, bowling shirts and bath robes you see the Dude inhabit for most of the film probably came out of his closet. Likewise, Bridges feels perfectly at home in this role, so much so that whenever I see him in any other film, no matter how far removed from this role it is, my first thought is normally a callback to something in this movie. From beginning to end, from the way he dressed, to the way he moved, and the pitch perfect way he delivered the Coen brothers very exacting dialogue (all of the uhs and huhs and whatnot are actually in the script) Bridges simply owned this part.
The Dude is accompanied in this strange journey by the militaristic and half mad ravings of his best friend and bowling partner, Walter Sobchak. Walter is a veteran of the Vietnam War, a fact he is happy to remind any and everyone of with (or without) the slightest provocation. If The Dude exists simply to take it easy and travel along the path of least resistance, Walter’s mission in life is to take the opposite path. Here is a man who gives no second thought to the act of pulling out a gun on somebody for something as minor as a simple bowling infraction. To say he has a few screws loose would be an understatement of understatements. That said, he is a very loyal friend, and when crap hits the fan as they say, someone you’d be lucky to have on your side, most of the time anyway. Walter Sobchak is said to be John Goodman’s favorite role, and I can see why. You can see the fun he’s having as this half crazy Vietnam vet who sees everything through the filter of his involvement in Vietnam… “I did not watch my buddies die face down in the muck, so that (insert whatever happens to be troubling him at the moment) could happen!
The third wheel in this group is Theodore Donald Karabotsos, most commonly called ‘Donny’, and played by Steve Buscemi, another one of my all time favorite actors. Buscemi doesn’t get that much to work with here though. Since most of his roles involve him being a motor mouth, the Coens decided it would be funny to have him say very little here, and in the few parts where he does dare utter a few syllables he is quickly drowned out by the boisterous Walter, who promptly tells him to “Shut the f— up, Donny” in one of the most often quoted running jokes of this very quotable movie.
As I said, what really makes this movie great to me is mainly the eccentric characters, and aside from the main three described above there are also a plethora of other great supporting roles, from The Big Lebowski himself, the secluded millionaire who lives in a grand art deco mansion with his sycophantic servant Brandt, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in one of his funniest roles ever. Then you have Lebowski’s trophy wife Bunny, played by Tara Reid in one of her sluttiest roles ever. On top of that there is the estranged daughter of the Big Lebowski, Maude, an abstract artist who specializes in vaginal paintings, played by Julianne Moore with an accent reminiscent of Katherine Hepburn with a decidedly English flair. Also tied up in this whole weird fiasco is the wealthy pornographer Jackie Treehorn played with effective sleaze by Ben Gazzara. And in the most famous of the supporting characters, in a role that barely gets ten minutes of screen time in the entire movie, John Turturro plays Jesus Quintana, a Spanish American bowler with a flair for tight purple jumpsuits, fancy rings, and who once served time in Chino for being a ‘pederast’ to quote the great Walter Sobchack. Oh, and the entire movie is narrated by a mysterious cowboy stranger played by Sam Elliot, who seems to be in the movie only because the Coen brothers loved his voice and his mustache, and hey, why not?
The Big Lebowski, a commercial and critical disappointment on its initial release, has grown to inspire an entire sub-culture around it. The cult phenomena of this movie originally began in the early days of the Internet after the movie gained some traction among those who rented it or purchased it in stores. Now it has grown far beyond that. There’s a Lebowski Fest, which is like a traveling circus/party in which thousands every year dress up in creative (and not so creative) costumes and imbibe copious amounts of White Russians while hanging out with fellow enthusiasts and rolling some strikes and gutter balls at a local bowling alley. There’s Lebowski books, a feature length documentary entitled ‘the Achievers’ (named ironically after a group of kids in the movie), and even a mock (to some people anyway) religion known as Dudeism in which people can become ordained in the ways of simply abiding and taking it easy.
All of that dorky-ness is probably a little overwhelming for most, this writer included, but it goes to show the reach that this film has had in the years since its original release. And even if you’re not into the whole ‘brevity thing’ of hanging out with a bunch of other grown men in bath robes telling each other to take it easy or conversely, to shut the f— up, you can still probably manage to have a pretty good time just sitting back at home and giving this movie one more go around in the old DVD player. One final point here; sometimes there’s a movie, that well, it’s the movie for it’s time and place, and even if it’s a confused mess of a movie, it can still be a very enjoyable one to millions of people the world over. Ah hell, I done introduced it enough.
No movie is perfect, but this is a movie we think is a “must watch.” A must have for your collection.
The Big Lebowski gets a five out of five: EXCELLENT.