Home > Film, Reviews > Retrospective Film Review: The Big Lebowski

Retrospective Film Review: The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski (1998; Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

It seems hard to accept now, but when The Big Lebowski was released 15 years ago in March of 1998, most film observers did not know quite what to make of it. Writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen had emerged from the indie fringes into Oscar-winning mainstream critical respectability two years before with the widely-praised snowbound Midwestern noir Fargo, and their peculiar appeal had expanded beyond their usual cadre of devoted cinephiles. But, ever their own idiosyncratic filmmaking beings, the Coens followed this acclaimed new American classic with a superficially meandering comedy set in the trashy sprawl of Los Angeles, starring Jeff Bridges as a bearded stoner in perpetual flip-flops who spends much of his time in a bowling alley (although, interestingly, we never see him bowl).

You can hear the confusion alongside a begrudging appreciation in Roger Ebert’s review of the film upon its release, chafing at the film’s disinclination to approach the aesthetic heights of Fargo but admitting that it’s “weirdly engaging” nonetheless. Although his later Great Movies retrospective skews closer to the accepted line of critical consensus on the cult classic status of Lebowski, the key tone is all in his initial response. “What is this,” Ebert and many others wondered, “and why do I find myself liking it so much?”

This, my own retrospective, approaches the first question rather than the second. It’s much more interesting, for my purposes, to consider a movie’s qualities and characteristics rather than speculate about or research why it resonates with viewers. Thinking about the first question, ideally, should address elements of the second.

So what is The Big Lebowski? It’s a comedy, surely, and a very funny and highly quotable one, if the multiple phrases from the screenplay now added to our popular lexicon are any indication. It’s also, structurally, a detective story, a sun-baked California twist (shot by Roger Deakins with cinematographic mastery that outstrips the casual material) on Raymond Chandler stories with Bridges’ laid-back but reasonable Dude as an accidental coastal-bum Philip Marlowe. This is acknowledged by a sweaty private investigator (Jon Polito) who recognizes the Dude as a “brother shamus” (“What, like an Irish monk?”) due to his deep implication in the ongoing intrigue. But what The Big Lebowski really adds up to through its invocation of the detective frame is a layered revelation of a culture of uncertainties, borrowings, and unreliability which can best be navigated with the detached, mellow, abiding attitude of the Dude.

Though Ebert states that the plot is not the point, the truth is that it is the point and it isn’t. Surely most movie-watching humans are aware by now that, upon the film’s commencement, the Dude returns to his L.A. apartment from bowling one night in late 1990 or early 1991, where he is accosted by a pair of thugs who tell him that his wife owes money to their employer. They proceed to pee on his rug, which troubles him because, of course, “It really tied the room together”, although soon after they realize it’s all a case of mistaken identity (“Does this place look like I’m fucking married?” the Dude ripostes. “The toilet seat’s up, man!”).

After hashing the incident out with his bowling buddies Walter Sobchak (the brilliant, alternately imposing and clownish John Goodman) and Donnie (Steve Buscemi, who atones for his blabbermouth Fargo character by being told to shut up by Walter whenever he opens his mouth), the Dude elects to buttonhole the man the goons were really after, a self-important, wheelchair-bound millionaire (David Huddleston) named (like the Dude himself) Jeffrey Lebowski, for compensation. This decision gets the Dude embroiled in a baroque set of interlocking machinations involving this other Lebowski, his trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid in her greatest role), his Bohemian artist daughter Maude (Julianne Moore, whose art is “strongly vaginal”), a smooth pornographer named Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), and a cadre of German nihilists (including Peter Stormare and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea) who have a pet ferret, like pancakes and electronic music, and threaten to castrate the Dude. All this, and several White Russians and marijuana cigarettes are consumed as well.

For a film often critically ghettoized as a “stoner classic”, The Big Lebowski is rather fiendishly complicated. However, unlike Chandler stories, little or nothing is revealed by unraveling the various strands in Old Duder’s head. “They threw out a ringer for a ringer!” the Dude says when explaining a particular point in the byzantine kidnapping plot, and the entire detective plot is kind of like that: a ringer tossed out for a ringer. The nihilists are fond of repeating that they believe in nothing, and though that doesn’t apply to this movie, the sentiment resonates off of the surrounding fictive walls. But nonetheless, the narrative structure is fascinating, proceeding from one misunderstanding to the next in a string of almost accidental occurrences that are quite purposely connected.

Careful, there’s a beverage here, man!

The structure is artfully reflected by the dialogue, especially by that of the Dude, who hears and then repeats phrases, often incorrectly or gnomically, in later scenes. He overhears George H.W. Bush in a grocery store, saying of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (precipitating the contemporaneous Gulf War) that “this aggression will not stand”; he then uses these words to describe the urination on his rug and justify his response. “In the parlance of our times”, “vagina”, “Johnson”, and so on; language is recycled and repurposed, its meanings re-applied, shifting and never quite stable.

This theme even has a showpiece visual component in the memorable “Gutterballs” musical drug-fantasy sequence that follows the Dude being drugged by Treehorn at a party. Set to a bizarre Kenny Rogers psychedelic-period tune (and thus usefully instructing us all that Kenny Rogers had a psychedelic period), “Gutterballs” is a marvelous slice of Freudian dream-logic, repurposing details from earlier parts of the film all while suggesting exactly nothing of what is to come. Mingling Bubsy Berkeley choreography with porno references and bowling imagery (including two balls and a pin that evoke male genitalia), the scene also features Saddam Hussein handing out bowling shoes and overt castration anxiety in the form of the lycra-suited nihilists chasing our slacker hero with oversized scissors. Like the recurrence of slices of idiosyncratic language, the meanings of the imagery that crops up here are ambiguous and unresolved.

That’s just, like, your opinion, man.

This inherent sense of uncertainty to everything in The Big Lebowski is what makes Walter’s overriding self-confidence in his own rightness (“Am I wrong?”, he is fond of asking after the Dude doubts his 100% ironclad assertions) so comically rich in this context. Whether making analogies to Vietnam (“There’s no literal connection”), or dubbing the German nihilists Nazis (“They were threatening castration, are we gonna split hairs here?”) and anti-Semites, or, most famously, claiming that he can “get you a toe by 3 o’clock this afternoon. With nail polish”, Walter is the rigid, self-aggrandizing operator to the Dude’s go-with-the-flow hippie bloviating. We all know someone like Walter, that uncle or co-worker or friend of a relative who is outspoken, opinionated, and utterly convinced in his role as a righteous bulwark against a ravenous society of vigorously-peddled bullshit. That he is at once recognizably universal and individualized (he takes care of his ex-wife’s dog while she vacations with her new beau, and has aggressively retained her Jewish faith despite their divorce) is a testament to Goodman’s performance and to the Coen’s writing.

But it’s Bridges’ Dude, like his rug, that ties this room together. Shambling through the movie with ineffable charm, it’s become Bridges’ signature role, and for good reason. The reality, mind you, is that the Dude does not “abide” as much as we’d like to think. He spends a good deal of the movie angry or alarmed at the circus of developments around him, reacting in the moment to the litany of people taking advantage of him with irritation. But he does evince an attractive approach to all of these violent Germans, manipulating artists, urinating Chinamen (“’Chinaman’ is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, dude”), overreacting Vietnam vet security experts, moniker-doppelganger rich men and reactionary sheriffs.

“Don’t be fatuous,” Maude tells him when he makes a snide comment about a cheap porn flick that Bunny appears in. But how else should he react to the cavalcade of nonsense whirling about him but with bemusement, if not occasional, outright dismissal? The Coens construct a simulacrum of a chaotic universe that looks rather like our own in The Big Lebowski, and we are asked to laugh at it with them, taking the Dude’s reaction as our cue. If we take it easy for all the sinners out there, like the patron saint of Dudeism does, according to our cowboy narrator (Sam Elliott), then navigating the fragmented madness of modern life becomes less of a burden. Whether this is what audiences have reacted to over 15 years or not, this is what comes out most clearly from the film itself, and what brings me back to it time after time, at least.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. July 11, 2013 at 8:28 am
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