Monday, April 18, 2011

The Greats: The Big Lebowski

When I recently watched The Big Lebowski for the first time in many years, I noticed something peculiar. The tone of the film is unwavering from its first frame to its last. It is pitch perfect all the way through. The Coen brothers have always been masters when it comes setting tone and mood in their films and The Big Lebowski, easily their biggest challenge to date, is an unparalleled success.

Everyone in the film is either an idiot or a moron. Our narrator, a perfectly cast Sam Elliott (come to think of it - everyone here is perfectly cast) loses his train of thought during his opening monologue. When he staggers onto the scene midway through the film, he appears drunk or stoned. Even The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is thinking, "What the hell is this guy talking about?" But The Dude abides, goes with the flow. With only a few brain cells left, The Dude knows not to question everything.

The Dude is more concerned about the soiled rug in his foyer - "It tied the room together, man" - than about the fact that two clueless men broke into his apartment. After repeated break-ins, he does not consider a deadbolt but actually installs a piece of plywood on the floor so he can wedge a chair between the wood and the door. He doesn't even consider the fact that maybe the door opens the other way.

His buddy, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), doesn't exactly think things through either. His anger issues override all logical thoughts in his head. Sobchak is a man-child; when things don't go his way, his reaction is immediate and violent. But he is incredibly loyal -- to his friends, to his country and to his guns.

Their friend Donnie (Steve Buscemi) is the sanest person in the entire film, but he's as clueless as they come. He tries so hard to keep up with the antics surrounding him. When it dawns on him that his friends are up to no good, he keels over and dies. The absurd reality was too much for poor Donnie. He should have just shut the fuck up, man.

When The Dude and Walter get embroiled in a complex kidnapping scheme involving a millionaire (also named Jeff Lebowski) and his trophy wife, they are clearly out of their element. Of course, that's the plan all along for the millionaire - he wants the scheme to fall apart so he can keep the money and get rid of Bunny all in one shot. Little does the Big Lebowski know that Bunny was not kidnapped after all. Little does anyone know anything in The Big Lebowski.

There is not one scene that does not feel fresh. Everything in The Big Lebowski is new and completely original. Sure, the dream sequences felt out of place upon first viewing, but once you've inhaled the film's narcotic essence a couple of times, they roll as sweet a bowler's strike. And what wonderful sequences they are! The major one, after porn producer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) knocks The Dude out with a drug, is a mood masterpiece set to the hypnotic tune of Kenny Rogers's "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)." When the Coen brothers plant a camera inside of a bowling ball as it rolls down a lane, you know you're watching something special.

The truth is, I can't spot a single cliche in the entire film. It moves in directions you can't possibly predict. The plot is a complex maze of misunderstandings; when populated by a bunch of nimwits, of course nothing will go as planned. The Big Lebowski is heavy on plot elements but is completely character-driven. The film moves along based on the characters' actions and inactions. That's what makes it so endearing. That's why there are Lebowski festivals every year. The Dude is an icon in his simplicity; if you can make him a White Russian, he'll go where ever you want him to. Walter wears his emotions on his sleeve. He always goes one step too far. Donnie has a look of devastation on his face when he hits 9 pins instead of 10. The man just wants to bowl a good game. Everything else is inconsequential. Maude (Julianne Moore) is the Big Lebowski's daughter and thinks the whole scheme stinks to high heaven. Inexplicably enough, she'll be happy as long as she gets The Dude's seed. Why The Dude? She doesn't say, and she doesn't really need to. Does the Pope shit in the woods? There's your answer to everything you need to know about The Big Lebowski.

Joel and Ethan Coen are master filmmakers, among the very best in the movie business. They are not the type of writers who sell out. They are determined to make fresh, original films, even if they are doing a remake or a book adaptation. None of their films will ever have a sequel. The Big Lebowski, like Fargo, like Barton Fink, like Blood Simple, is a masterpiece in mood cinema. And if you find yourself disagreeing with that sentiment, well then you are about to enter a world of pain, my friend.


Brent said...

A terrific film, containing goofy humor, absurdity and some real depth as well. Can't go wrong with The Dude!

Dave said...

As long as you have a White Russian, you just can't go wrong! Thanks for reading. :-)

Andrew Green said...

Excellent analysis....
I've always been intrigued by the mysteries of The Big Lebowski. What does it all MEAN?


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