“I don’t see any connection to Vietnam, Walter.”
“Well, there isn’t a literal connection, Dude.”
“Walter, face it, there isn’t any connection.”
A stoner and a Vietnam vet stuck in the past, porn stars, avant-garde artists, and German nihilists…all in a Raymond Chandler-esque story? Dude, what would you have to be smoking to come up with that plot?
The latest trend in filmmaking seems to be brothers working together behind the camera. There’s Paul and Chris Weitz, who directed and produced (respectively) American Pie. Larry and Andy Wachowski co-wrote and co-directed both Bound and The Matrix. Peter and Bobby Farrelly have made several of the funniest comedies of the past decade, including Dumb And Dumber, Kingpin, and There’s Something About Mary. But long before any of those upstarts got their feet in the door, there were the brothers Coen, Joel and Ethan. Joel and Ethan Coen have made their way in Hollywood by playing by their own rules, making films where they retain complete control, and crafting their wares according to their own sensibilities. Their work has spanned many genres, from the neo-noir of Blood Simple, to the peculiar slapstick of Raising Arizona (their most commercially successful film), to Prohibition-era gangster film Miller’s Crossing, to my favorite target of a “Simpsons” joke, Barton Fink. Next followed the triumvirate of movies I have reviewed this week: The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, and today, The Big Lebowski.
Most filmmakers, if they had a critical hit the size of Fargo would proceed to make their next movie in a similar vein. Not the Coens. The laconic seriousness of Fargo gave way to the tripped-out weirdness of The Big Lebowski, a neo-noir musical bowling comedy in which the entire plot hinges upon a rug that someone pees on.
If I can say one thing to The Big Lebowski‘s credit (and believe me, I can say much more), you will never see another movie like it. In many ways, it defies explanation, because no plot summary could ever do it justice. It’s the story of Jeff Lebowski, who prefers to be called “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges — Arlington Road). The Dude exists in his own world, where he whiles away his days drinking, smoking pot, and bowling. Bowling, it seems, is his sole purpose and goal in life. He has two bowling buddies, Walter (John Goodman — Raising Arizona) and Donnie (Steve Buscemi — Fargo). Walter reminds me of quite a few people I’ve known in my life. He is stuck in the past, namely in his Army days during the Vietnam War. He’s also fixated on his ex-wife. Donnie…well, Donnie never gets to finish a sentence before being cut off, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s a few fries short of a Happy Meal.
Everything in The Dude’s life is peaceful until one day two thugs break into his apartment wanting money that he owes them. They have him mixed up with another Jeff Lebowski, who happens to be a millionaire. One of the thugs relieves himself on The Dude’s rug — the one that really tied the room together. So, The Dude tracks down the other Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston — Santa Claus: The Movie) to be compensated for the ruined rug. He gets a replacement rug, and everything is fine…until the Big Lebowski’s wife Bunny (Tara Reid — American Pie) is kidnapped. She’s a young trophy wife, and owes money to a pornographer, and is also involved with a group of German nihilists. It’s all very confusing.
The story really isn’t the point of The Big Lebowski. In typical Raymond Chandler fashion, the protagonist is lead on a journey wherein he interacts with a variety of colorful characters. The brothers Coen compare it to The Big Sleep. The story goes that while that film was in production, director Howard Hawks, screenwriter Leigh Brackett and star Humphrey Bogart argued over whether one of the characters committed suicide or whether he was murdered. They called author Raymond Chandler, who had written the novel, and guess what? He didn’t know either. But I digress. The Dude takes an odd journey wherein he meets people that in many ways are stranger than he is. The Big Lebowski’s artist daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore — Boogie Nights, Hannibal), coerces him into fathering her child. The pornographer who’s the “Mr. Big” behind the story, Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara — Summer Of Sam), has The Dude kidnapped and drugged, seemingly for no reason. Walter accosts a teenage boy for stealing The Dude’s car and the briefcase containing the $1 million. The Big Lebowski’s assistant Brandt (Phillip Seymour Hoffman — Scent Of A Woman, Boogie Nights) seems to find nothing out of the ordinary while gravely calling The Dude by his preferred name.
The plot isn’t quite as labyrinthine as The Big Sleep. By the end of the movie, you should be able to figure out what really happened, but I doubt you’ll really care. I mean that in a positive way. You’ll have been on such a ride with all the distinctive characters that you’ll still be processing everything. It’s best just to go along for the ride and not really pay attention to the story. It’s the sort of movie that’s great when you’re lucid, but even better when you have a nice beer buzz going. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever taken my own advice. Better break out the microbrew…
The copy of The Big Lebowski I have was published by Polygram. From my understanding, their catalog is now owned by MGM, but the version on the shelves is still under the Polygram label. Get it while you can, because I’m sure if MGM re-releases it, they’ll get rid of all the extras and put the two transfers on opposite sides of the disc. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic and an open-matte transfer, selectable from the main menu. The open-matte full frame version seems a little grainier than the anamorphic transfer. Other than the occasional dust mote, it is a very clean transfer. The film tends to range from garish neon to dull earthtones, and the DVD reproduces the entire range accurately. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. Fidelity is superb, though there is little use of the surrounds or LFE channels.
Extras consist of a theatrical teaser trailer, cast and crew bios, and a 30-minute interview with the Coens. The trailer is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen with stereo sound. I remember seeing the trailer in the theatre and thinking that it looked like a very creative film. It does exactly what a trailer should do: give you an idea of the style of the film, and not give away any of the plot. In fact, there’s not a line of dialogue in the entire trailer; it’s simply a montage of shots from the film accompanied by Kenny Rogers’ “Just Dropped In.” The interview with the Coens is worth the price of the disc. They discuss their motivation and inspirations for the film in their laid-back Midwestern fashion, and display an uncanny, unnerving habit of synchronous fingernail picking. They’re a kick in the pants to watch and to listen to.
There’s nothing that I can find in the debit column against the film or the disc.
Maybe one small thing. John Turturro, another longtime Coen collaborator, plays Jesus, a member of The Dude’s bowling league. In a tangential moment, Walter explains that Jesus is a convicted child molester. The story and the character makes me laugh, but not without the pang that there’s nothing very funny about it. Thank God I never experienced anything of that sort, but there are far too many people who have, and to use someone who has committed that crime as the butt of a joke is insensitive to the pain of millions. Now, before you start mumbling under your breath about political correctness, think about this: how would you feel if a joke was made at the expense of your pain?
Coen Brothers fans and anyone who likes off-the-wall comedy would be well advised to add The Big Lebowski to their collection.
Screenit.com says that the “f-word” is used over 250 times in The Big Lebowski. With the movie’s 98 minute running time, that’s about once every 24 seconds. While I think a Joe Pesci movie beats it in sheer quantity, The Big Lebowski wins for frequency.
Now that I think about it, there’s more parallels between The Big Lebowski and The Big Sleep than first meet the eye. With few minor exceptions, the film’s perspective is limited to the action that takes place directly around The Dude, like The Big Sleep‘s viewpoint was limited to what Philip Marlowe could see. The Dude, like Marlowe, is hired (sort of) by a rich man confined to a wheelchair. The old man’s daughter helps Marlowe and becomes romantically involved with him; The Big Lebowski’s daughter helps The Dude and then sleeps with him (after having him screened by a doctor for suitability as a sperm donor). Both protagonists drink heavily: Marlowe scotch, The Dude White Russians. Both men have a fondness for Credence Clearwater Revival. Oh, wait, I’m the one that likes CCR, not Marlowe.
The Coen Brothers are part of small cadre of directors who work within the Hollywood system to create films that are far removed from the mainstream. The work of the Coens, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee, Steven Soderbergh, and others gives me hope that Hollywood has not completely sold its soul to the devil, that there is still some love for the artistic side of filmmaking. It has been such a pleasure to review a trilogy of films that are so fresh and original. I’m sort of repeating what I said in my review of Fargo, but the same sentiment applies to all three films. Most of the films that pass through your local multiplex will be entirely forgotten in fifty years. It will only be the films that present something different that will be truly memorable. Each movie from the Coen’s filmography fits that designation. Long live creativity.