“Now this here story I'm about to unfold took place back in the early '90s – just about the time of our conflict with Sadd'm and the I-raqis. I only mention it because sometimes there's a man... I won't say a hero, 'cause, what's a hero? But sometimes, there's a man. And I'm talkin' about The Dude here. Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. And that's The Dude. And even if he's a lazy man – and The Dude was most certainly that. Quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin' for laziest worldwide. But sometimes there's a man, sometimes, there's a man. Ah. I lost my train of thought here. But... ah, hell. I've done introduced him enough.”
Following on from my recent Miller’s Crossing review, I also had the opportunity to check out the only other title directed by the Coen Brothers which I regard as great. Sure, they have done a lot of good films, and plenty of critically acclaimed ones, but I have not always enjoyed their productions – for one reason or another – and only these two, for me, stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. Although very different in tone, both of them – as with most Coen films – can have their loose origins traced back to detective fiction; in the case of Miller’s Crossing it was based on the work of Dashiell Hammett, and for The Big Lebowski, in case it’s not obvious, it was the work of Raymond ‘The Big Sleep’ Chandler. But The Big Lebowski, unlike Miller’s, was much more clearly a comedy – albeit with all the wacky, offbeat humour that you would only expect from the Coens.
“Let me explain something to you. Um, I am not "Mr. Lebowski". I'm the Dude. So that's what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing.”
“The Dude” is a lazy slacker who doesn’t have a job, has to write a cheque in order to buy a carton of milk, and who spends most of his life in shorts, slippers and a dressing gown (even when out in public) sipping White Russians and smoking reefers right to the filter (often requiring tweezers to get the most out of his joints). Often fumbling with words – those that he can muster up are dominated by “man” and “you know” – language certainly isn’t his forte. In fact nothing much is, except perhaps bowling, as he is part of a local league, along with a couple of similarly quirky friends – the overly aggressive “it was just like ‘Nam” Walter, and the well-meaning but insipidly reserved Donny. When a couple of thugs break into The Dude’s dilapidated apartment and soil his favourite rug – mistaking him for another man who goes by the same name (no, not “The Dude”, his real name: Jeffrey Lebowski) – he approaches the other Jeffrey Lebowski, a wheelchair-bound multi-millionaire, to get remunerated for the loss of his rug. The ‘big’ Lebowski initially dismisses The Dude, but later contacts him to ask for help following the kidnapping of his trophy wife; he thinks that, if The Dude can make the pay-off, he may be able to identify the kidnappers as being the same thugs who broke into his home and urinated on his rug. Of course, anything involving The Dude and his equally wacky friends is highly unlikely to go as expected.
I say that The Big Lebowski is a comedy, but I use that in the loosest sense of the word, and it’s said with the disclaimer that neither this particular feature nor any of the Coen Brothers’s ‘comedies’ boast humour with a universal appeal; indeed, perhaps never has humour been more subjective – and thus divisive – than in the works of the Coen Brothers. If you don’t get The Dude, and his hapless, idiotic but distinctly lovable nature; if you don’t understand why his bumbling from one disaster to the next – like a kind of an anti-Humphrey Bogart / Phillip Marlowe private detective, who, instead of deducing the next step forward, merely stumbles across it, often almost by accident – is humorous, and find that his character is consequently quaintly endearing, then there really is little point in trying to endure this movie. Because it will be like an endurance test, particularly if you are watching it with somebody who – in your eyes, inexplicably – loves this film.
“This is a very complicated case. You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous. And, uh, a lotta strands to keep in my head, man. Lotta strands in old Duder's head. Fortunately, I'm adhering to a pretty strict, uh, drug regimen to keep my mind, you know, uh, limber.”
For those who stick with it, and, start to chuckle over the little things – the funny screaming sound that The Dude makes when he a) is confronted by an angry marmot in his bath and b) drops the butt of his reefer in his lap whilst driving – will likely find this a hilarious outing with some highly unusual characters who go on a pretty-much unique journey. I suspect that Chandler would have been proud has his work led to such an inspired alternative film noir (as he would have been equally impressed with Robert Altman’s fantastic contemporary take on Marlowe's The Long Goodbye) which boasts the kind of labyrinthine plot of double- and triple-crossing; estranged children of rich bastard parents; blackmail and kidnapping; and drugging and hallucinations that the only thing that’s missing is a dead chauffeur (we get a live one instead). Indeed, were it not for the comedy and the characters (or the comedy that comes from the characters) this would be one of the best adaptations yet.
Jeff Bridges makes for an outstanding lead character in a role which the Coen Brothers wrote for him, one which would not only define his casting over the next 12 years, but would actually seemingly affect him as a person. Apparently it took Bridges several years in the industry before he realised that he wanted to be a serious actor – up until then it was all ‘sex, drugs and meditation’. That may be true enough, but, after acknowledging that he related to his role as The Dude more than any other that he had taken, it felt like this admission gave him carte blanche to incorporate aspects of his true self into every subsequent performance. For good of for bad, this has led to hints of El Duderino in most every film from Tron: Legacy to True Grit, with his part in The Men Who Stare at Goats being an almost unmistakeable ode. Thankfully few will dispute the fact that he is still a great actor (Crazy Heart) and, if anything, this knowledge makes The Big Lebowski even more memorable.
“We're gonna’ f**k you up!”
“Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.”
A lovable, clumsy, carefree, whimsical, philosophical would-be rogue, The Dude makes for a thoroughly unconventional protagonist to root for; as a once-member of a radical anti-war movement, he is a true ‘hippy’ – he never raises his fists or overtly stands up for himself, yet his surprisingly wily strikes against his oppressors will likely have you cheering for him nonetheless. When having his head repeatedly plunged into a toilet and being asked where money is that he doesn’t even know about; he isn’t a tough guy who would fright his attackers off, instead merely offering up one sardonic response: “It's uh... it's down there somewhere, let me take another look.” When one of the police chiefs rails at him – at length – for causing the 'big' Lebowski trouble, ending his rant in the usual veiled threat: “Do I make myself clear?”; The Dude merely retorts: “I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening.” It’s these moments of defiance that give you something to root for in The Dude, as every witty remark he throws out actually disguises a pointed piece of commentary.
The rest of the characters in this wacky adventure are just as colourful, and some of them are surprisingly loveable too, not least John Goodman’s Walter, an ex-Vietnam vet who makes sure everybody knows about that fact. Always taking the more violent standpoint, his outbursts often border on the comical, not least when he disagrees with the bowling score, brandishing a handgun and stating: “You mark that frame an eight and you’re entering a world of pain.” Walter’s often unwanted attempts to help The Dude normally end in disaster. But he means well, and somehow the excellent, and highly underrated, character actor Goodman delivers the goods in this role, making him both uncomfortably aggressive but also forgiveable in his good intention; I'm sure we all know characters almost as lovably crazy as Walter, and, second only to The Dude, his is the most memorable of those present in this colourful adventure. Steve Buscemi’s Donny completes the trio; he’s a quiet, reserved sort, who often antagonises Walter by his constant interruptions and seeming inability to keep up with the thread of the conversations that the three have. Both acting and looking like a proper Laurel & Hardy duo (with swearing), Walter and Donny comprise The Dude’s hilarious entourage.
“It's like what Lenin said...”
“‘I am the walrus?’”
The Coen Brothers always have a regular pool of actors who work in many of their films and, aside from Bridges, Goodman and Buscemi, who are all on that list, we also get John Turturro (see how far he’s fallen, no pun intended, in Transformers 2) getting an outstanding cameo as a creepy bowling opponent, Jon Polito (Miller’s Crossing) as a low-rent private investigator, and Peter Stormaire (Fargo) as a ‘nihilist’ gang member. There are also a bunch of other familiar faces, including Tara Reid (Cruel Intentions) as the kidnapped trophy wife, Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Capote, Mission: Impossible III) as the big Lebowski’s gopher, Sam Elliott (We Were Soldiers) as the cowboy/narrator to the film, and Julianne Moore (Children of Men) as the big Lebowski’s equally odd, avant-garde feminist ‘artist’ daughter. They all provide memorable moments for the film, although Bridges, Goodman and Turturro stand out amidst the rest, particularly surprising in the case of Turturro, who gets about 60 seconds to work his magic, but makes an indelible impression upon you even in that short time.
In fact The Big Lebowski is perhaps more about these characters that we meet on the pit-stops along this eventful journey, than about the destination itself. And you could read plenty into the whole affair – social commentary, nods to the Iraq War (including a glimpse of Saddam himself, as well as the neo-con character of Walter) a critique on proto-feminism – but the Coen Brothers are not really known for their deep subtext. They’re far from pretentious, although they are still fairly egotistical: they are known for making films just the way they want to, not pandering to Studio pressures or even audience sentiments. Their intentions often involve portraying the least likely candidates, true underdogs, as the heroes of the piece; The Dude and his friends are a perfect example in this respect. The majority of their films did not even do that well on cinema release (including The Big Lebowski), and have only since gone on to grow cult followings, yet they still make them just the way they want to. For better or worse. And The Big Lebowski is one of just a couple of productions by them which stands out as being truly great: for its humour, for its colourful characters and brilliant performances, and for its sheer imagination; it comes highly recommended.
“That rug really tied the room together.”
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