Previous: Le samouraï
The Big Lebowski is a shapeless, genial, hilarious movie about a guy who is himself genial and hilarious and none too shapely. His name is Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), but he prefers to be called The Dude, and he spends a good deal of time tiresomely correcting people about this particular fact. This is probably due to the fact that he shares the last name of a local philanthropist, "Big" Lebowski (David Huddleston, looking disturbingly like Dick Cheney). The two could not be more dissimilar: The Dude does things like drink milk in the supermarket before paying for it with a rumpled personal check, while Big Lebowski creates programs for underprivileged urban children.
The only way to make these two characters co-exist in the same movie, it seems, is to put them into a screwball plot that's like The Big Sleep crossed with Animal House. In fact, big chunks of the plot of Lebowski seem inspired by Sleep — a powerful man in a wheelchair; a pornography subplot; a missing young woman; et any number of ceteras. It's close enough to count as homage, but it's played as comedy; the thriller plot is mostly a clothesline for gags.
The Big Lebowski was the first film by the Coen Brothers after Fargo, and it's as unlike that movie as Fargo was unlike, say, Miller's Crossing. The Coens are in love with American eccentrics, the kind of people you find yourself living next door to but don't want to admit you're probably as bad as, and they've made a movie that is like a love letter to screw-ups and bottom-feeders everywhere. That it is embedded in a screwball-noir plot only makes it all the more endearing: it's the kind of movie that effortlessly appeals both to lovers of the bizarre and more conventional audiences.
The plot, such as it is, literally comes out of nowhere. One night two thugs smash their way into the Dude's apartment, demand money that he doesn't have in the name of a woman he's never heard of, and pee on his rug for good measure. This leaves the Dude seething, and in one of the movie's funniest scenes he sits with his friends and fulminates about the fate of the rug and how it "tied the whole room to gether." Dude's main pal and bowling partner, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), insists that the Dude go to the real Lebowski and demand restitution. After all, he's the one who has the unruly wife, right? The Dude agrees, and off he goes to meet with "Big" Lebowski, during which everything that comes out of his mouth will be criminally misinterpreted.
Then things get complicated. Lebowski's wife goes missing, and the Dude gets called on to make a ransom drop. Unfortunately, the Dude enlists the help of Sobchak, who hatches a nutjob "plan" that sends the Dude's car auguring headfirst into a telephone pole, among many other horrible things. This is not what the Dude needs. Most of his life centers around bowling, getting stoned, and scamming off his friends, not being chased by strong-arm thugs and being asked to make ransom deals. The film gets even more unhinged with the introduction of Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), "Big"'s daughter, sort of. With her immensely precise vocabulary and her helmet of black hair, she strides into the Dude's life like an interior decorator on a mission to rearrange all of his psychic furniture.
The Dude goes shuttlecocking back and forth between Maude and her father, with one mad interlude after another — like a scene where the Dude and Sobchak go to shake down a kid that they suspect of having taken the Dude's car for a joyride, only to have it end horribly. In another goofy moment, the Dude actually tries to pull some detective work — the old rub-the-pencil-on-the-pad trick — only to get stiffed. Literally. And when the Dude gets conked on the head or takes a pull of the wrong drink, he slides into Busby Berkeley fantasy sequences that hilariously re-assemble bits and pieces of earlier scenes.
The real fun of a movie like The Big Lebowski is not the plot, which is as loopy as can be without flying completely apart. It's in the dialogue and in the characters. The Dude's vocabulary, aside from being peppered compulsively with "man"s and "dude"s, is like a fire sale assemblage of everything people said to him five minutes ago. Every conversation in the movie is a landmine of false starts, mistaken assumptions, four-letter words and flat-out oddities. Sometimes a simple mispronounciation will do, as when one of a gang of Nihilist thugs (Peter Stormare) tells the Dude that he will cut off his "chonson."
The very funniest movies are about people who do the craziest things with a completely straight face, and Lebowski is like a compilation of a whole asylum's worth of such folks. The Dude himself (based loosely on movie producer Jeff Dowd, who helped the Coens get their break into movies) is played by Bridges as a vaguely amused ex-hippie, happy enough to coast from day to day on a string of reefers, bowling games and bottles of sarsaparilla. It's only when someone interferes with his Zen slob lifestyle that he gets motivated to do something about it ... which, unfortunately, only creates even bigger messes. Case inpoint is a little piece of physical comedy that comes and goes so fast you might miss it: to keep people from breaking into his apartment, he nails down a supporting doorstop — only to find out the door opens outwards.
Among the best of the other characters is John Goodman's, a former Vietnam vet and gun nut who is a walking collection of monomanias. Consider, for instance, a scene where Sobchak pulls a gun on a bowling partner and demands that he erase his last score, because he stepped over the line and that's a foul. Can't have people bending the rules, right? Rules are all that hold us together! And in another scene, he solemnly (and then not so solemnly) explains to his friends why he simply cannot drive a car on Saturday, and the way Goodman embodies the character effortlessly is half of what makes those scenes so funny.
There are a lot of movies out there that start off with a bang, go a lot of places furiously, and then end up nowhere. The Big Lebowski does that, too, but the difference is that it is fully aware of that, and celebrates it. It's not meant to add up to much except a good time, and sometimes that's all you need. I find it very hard to argue with any movie where John Goodman wallops the tar out of an Eighties German synth band with a bowling ball.
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