Sunday, September 20, 2009

“You want a toe? I can get you a toe, believe me. There are ways, Dude.”

The creative team collectively known as the Coen Brothers (Joel & Ethan) have a reputation for experimenting with stories, both in their content and in the method of delivery. 1998’s The Big Lebowski, while not a commercial success like their earlier film Fargo, has earned itself quite a popular afterlife on video.

Los Angeles, shortly after the first Gulf War in the 1990s. An unemployed bowling enthusiast and past-his-prime hippie gets his rug peed on by thugs who confused him with a millionaire who shares his name. At first only concerned with restitution for the rug, he gets swept into a dirty world of corruption, violent nihilists, and double crosses. The plot is pretty much lifted from the classic film noir and pulp novel style of the early-mid 20th century, only instead of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, we’ve got a slacker who prefers to be referred to as the Dude. Now, I’ve heard/read various things saying that the plot of the film is totally unimportant and irrelevant, but I, I say bollocks to that. The plot is absolutely integral to the story of this film. Without the opening action that disrupts the Dude’s lifestyle, there is no action, there is no spiraling out of control for several characters, and ultimately, there would be no movie. Just because the characters are the ones firmly in the driver’s seat doesn’t mean the plot isn’t an essential part of the movie. The plot’s there, its vital to the story, and its also a part of the overall parody/tribute to the film noir genre. Sure there are red herrings and dead ends that ultimately don’t lead to the main resolution, that’s a staple of the genre, and the Coens are throwing those into the blender of this film to play with, subvert, but ultimately validate, because they did use those tropes.

The Dude (Jeffrey Lebowski): Jeff Bridges is the Dude, a laid back, unemployed, aging stoner who just wants to drink White Russians and play in his bowling league. Of course, that doesn’t last and he gets his rug peed on by two thugs, tracks down the millionaire Lebowski, gets a new rug, loses the new rug, gets called in to help the big Lebowski ransom his kidnapped wife, loses the ransom money, goes bowling several times, gets laid and is generally inconvenienced by the events of the movie. It’s a lot to take in, when you think about it, but the Dude never really falters in his own ideals, which are pretty much centered around getting his rug problem fixed, getting into the bowling finals and generally abiding.

Walter Sobchak: John Goodman plays the Dude’s best friend, a Vietnam veteran with anger issues and access to firearms. Walter is the foul mouthed, gun-toting foil to the Dude’s more passive attitude, and the chemistry the two have on screen is fantastic. Hell, even though I think the Dude’s a great character, Walter, with all of his insane quirks that keep surfacing through the film and his dialog exchanges with the Dude (most of which are unprintable for the loosely “PG-13” level I’m going for with these reviews) steal the show for me. He’s a badass. A thoroughly insane badass.

Theodore Donald “Donny” Kerabatsos: Steve Buscemi is the third member of the hero trio, but isn’t really involved in the main plot. He’s pretty much there to hang out at the bowling alley, throw strikes and piss off Walter into a frenzy when he asks what’s going on.

Jeffrey Lebowski (The Big Lebowski): David Huddleston (who played Olson Johnson in Blazing Saddles, yeah, a bit of an odd aside, I know) is the title character. Wealthy, wheelchair-bound and a self-made man, he has incredible disdain for the Dude, but turns to him when his trophy wife goes missing and a ransom note is presented.

Brandt: Philip Seymour Hoffman is the Big Lebowski’s sycophantic assistant. Not much to say about the character, but Hoffman does a great job of being a sniveling go-between for the two Lebowskis.

Bunny Lebowski: Tara Reid is the Big Lebowski’s trophy wife, and huge slut who’s disappearance triggers the rest of the plot. Is she really kidnapped? Is it a trick to get more money from her husband? What’s her sordid past? A huge chunk of the mystery comes out of her disappearance.

Maude Lebowski: Okay, it’s the last character named Lebowski. Julianne Moore is the Big Lebowski’s daughter from a previous marriage, an avant-garde artist with a distinctly femminist bent. She has a flamboyant friend with a penchant for giggling played by, and I didn’t recognize him until IMDB told me, David Thewlis (yeah, from Dragonheart).

Jackie Treehorn: Ben Gazzara plays a porn kingpin to whom Bunny owes money. His thugs were the ones that peed on the Dude’s carpet.

The Nihilists: Peter Stormare, Torsten Voges and Flea (from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) are three German nihilists (who believe in nothing) that are ransoming a very large sum of money from the Big Lebowski.

The Stranger: Sam Elliot plays the, for lack of a better word, Narrator of the film, an easygoing, sarsaparilla-drinking cowboy. He shows up in the film to talk to the Dude at a couple points as well.

Jesus Quintana: John Turturo is a scene stealing rival bowler who gets some fantastic lines, dresses all in purple, and licks his bowling ball before throwing it. Indeed, nobody fucks with the Jesus. But if the character’s so scene stealing, why isn’t he the badass of the film? Eight year olds, dude.

And yes, that is Jerry Haleva as Saddam Hussein in that one dream sequence.

The visual directing by Joel & Ethan Coen is really solid all around, traveling into the sublime at many points. The dream sequences in particular have a kind of Busby Berkley/Expressionist/Surrealist bent to them that is simply hilarious on a gut level but incredible to watch on a composition level. The shots in the bowling alley are pretty much the most gorgeously done frames in the film, effectively serving as “bowling porn.” The pacing of the film does lag a little bit in the middle of the film, but there’s always something going on, and the tight focus on the Dude’s character keeps you anchored through the slower parts.

Joel & Ethan Coen again. The dialog is tight. Really tight. Like I said above, the movie is ridiculously quotable. The structure of the film is built as a character piece, focusing on the Dude and his reactions to the events around him, but if you’re paying attention and are at all genre savvy, you’ll realize it also follows the structure of film noir, which is brilliantly done, because it integrates all sorts of elements from the genre with wild twists.

The soundtrack for the movie is fantastic. A mix of songs, particularly some classics from the 60s fit their scenes perfectly, particularly the Creedence Clearwater Revival songs (since the Dude’s car has some Creedence tapes in his car).

The Big Lebowski is a fantastic movie. My experience with the Coen Brothers’ films hasn’t been very deep so far (I for one, didn’t care for Burn After Reading in the least), but this film is a tightly and meticulously crafted project with fantastic performances and a willingness to experiment with narrative structure. Perhaps not their most experimental film, but certainly a solid, well-recommended effort.

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