In spite of two recent misfires (2003's merely competent 'Intolerable Cruelty' followed by 2004's appallingly ill-judged farce 'The Ladykillers') the Coen brothers have consistently proven themselves to be two of the most talented and respected filmmakers in contemporary American cinema. A tremendously rich vein of form has seen them amass an enviable canon of classic movies stretching admirably over a career which is now entering its third decade. After a decidedly lacklustre initial release on DVD, Universal have returned to the vaults to bring us a brand new Collector's Edition of one of the Coen's more idiosyncratic efforts, 1998's 'The Big Lebowski'.
The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is a middle-aged slacker who finds some unwanted company from a pair of local hoodlums who mistake him for his namesake, local millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski. After roughing him up and relieving himself on his rug, they depart. Buoyed on by bowling buddy Walter (John Goodman) the Dude confronts the aforementioned 'Big' Lebowski over compensation for his soiled rug. The Dude discovers that Lebowski's estranged wife Bunny (Tara Reid) has gotten involved with some unsavoury characters who have claimed to have kidnapped her. Walter and the Dude find themselves as bagmen in an elaborate blackmail exchange between Lebowski and the kidnappers. When you put your trust in an ageing stoner and his emotionally scarred Vietnam pal however, things are bound to go pear shaped, and they do in spectacular fashion when the Duke finds himself embroiled in a dangerous web of intrigue, pornography, and bowling.
I remember my first encounter with 'The Big Lebowski' vividly. After watching 'Fargo' upon it's initial release and being bowled over, I eagerly awaited the Coen's follow up film, rich with anticipation. When I finally saw Lebowski my initial reaction was... well, disappointment. After the watertight plot and pacing of 'Fargo', Lebowski seemed lackadaisical, shambolic and ambling. It seemed like a vanity piece, the half baked lazy concoction of a couple of obviously talented filmmakers who had rested on their laurels and started to believe their own hype. Hindsight however, is many a splendid thing, and subsequent viewings have shown my knee-jerk response to be no more than blinded naive idiocy. May God forgive my sins, for make no mistake about it, I don't think I'm going overboard in proclaiming this as one of the true modern American classics. History will be kind to Lebowski, as it is to numerous seventies greats that this bears resemblance to. If this had been made twenty years ago by Robert Altman or Woody Allen the world would be singing its praises from the mountaintops. It seems however that the general public shared my initial bewilderment over the film, as disappointing box-office pretty much sunk the project and relegated the film to a minor entry in the Coen's filmography, which is a crying shame.
Looking back now, the Coen's seem obviously buoyed by the tremendous critical and commercial reception 'Fargo' deservedly received. Far from feeling pressure to replicate the predecessors success, 'The Big Lebowski' actually finds them at their most relaxed, as carefree and laidback as the Dude himself. This is a wonderful celluloid example of two supremely talented filmmakers just going with the flow, and taking us along for the crazy ride. It's like a school trip as a child where the coach ride was half the fun. We don't know where it may take us but in reality we don't care, because the journey itself is entertainment enough. Peppered with witty verbose dialogue and endlessly quotable, the film's madcap lunacy is so infectious that it won't be long before you find yourself shouting “where's the money Lebowski?” in your best German accent at some pour soul in the street. This is without a doubt the most out and out hilarious Coen flick to date. The lightweight ambiance belies the fact that there is quite an intricate Chandler-esque plot going down here. The basic story arc is so well conceived it's entirely plausible that the Coen's could have picked it up and ran with it for a 'Fargo 2' if you will. But that certainly is not the intention in Lebowski. Here the laidback haphazard yarn is more by design than by inadequacy, and the thrilling mystery is less of a concern than the exploration of those figures who find themselves embroiled in it.
Free from the constraints of a tightly plotted narrative, Lebowski's rich characters are given full reign to flourish. In a career spent crafting memorable leading men, Jeff Bridges' the Dude, and John Goodman's Walter Sobchak stand as arguably the two most iconic creations Joel and Ethan Coen have to offer. The fact that they are both from 'The Big Lebowski' shows you we are onto a winner here, and their expert odd couple partnership delights from beginning to end. With his nightgown, open-toed sandals and array of casual shorts, the Dude is a sublime comic creation, impeccably realised by Bridges in a turn which demonstrates just what an underused flair for comedy the man has (and what a truly varied actor he is). The Dude is a man stuck in a timewarp of free love and civil liberties, struggling to get by in the harsh realities of George W. Bush's Republican regime in the White House. Time has moved on but the Dude has stood still, too much Primo Caucasian and cannabis leaving him drifting aimlessly through life. There is some nice social commentary in his mirroring with his namesake Jeffrey Lebowski (played with cantankerous relish by David Huddlestone). They share the same name yet are miles apart - the Dude an impoverished relic of a bygone time, whereas the 'Big' Lebowski tries to live his life to the capitalist ethics of modern USA, the 'American Dream' at it's most logical extreme. The Dude's sidekick Walter is another comedy masterstroke, a Vietnam Vet with an extremely short fuse and a penchant for handguns. Walter's rage-induced tirades against the world at large are a work of genius as is his incessant and irrelevant metaphorical returns to the killing fields of 'Nam at every opportunity. Coen regular Goodman serves up a career-best performance here, providing the most uproaringly hilarious turn by a rotund comedy sidekick since John Candy tragically shuffled off this mortal coil. It's a testament to the depth and observation of the Coen's that even the most minor of characters are allowed to flourish. Steve Buscemi is superb as the hapless final part of the triumvirate, the mild mannered Donny. Even more memorable is John Turturro's fabulous turn as the camp bowling maestro with a sinister past Jesus Quintana. As a character piece the supporting cast do a superb job of keeping the plot moving along nicely. In fact the assembled cast has a strength in depth a Paul Thomas Anderson would kill for, including such luminaries as Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ben Gazzara, Peter Stormare and Tara Reid in her first starring role.
Of course to explore 'The Big Lebowski' purely in terms of characters would do a great disservice to its wonderfully realised visuals. The lovingly constructed sets play up the dizzying amalgam of twisted rustic Texarkana, ruthless big business, and rowdy Vegas-style artifice to an absolute tee. This is surely the most visually audacious film in the Coen brothers back catalogue. The Dude's frequent trips into fantasy are impeccably crafted and Terry Gilliam-influenced in their grand eccentricity (Moore as a bowling valkyrie? Bridges obtaining bowling shoes from Saddam Hussain? All to a Kenny Rodgers beat?) The amusing intro to 'Logjammin' also shows that if their movie career goes belly up then they have at least a calling behind the lens in the porn business to fall back on.
If all this gushing sound like a love letter, then all well and good. This is an offbeat work of unconventional genius, which subtly unveils its charms over repeated viewings. It's probably not the best film to plunge the uninitiated into the world of the Coens, for that the sure fire satisfaction of a 'Raising Arizona' or a 'Fargo' is probably the way to go. For my money however, this is the pinnacle of everything the Coen brothers are about, a pure distilled slice of what makes them so special and distinctive in the annals of American cinema. They say the best things come to those who wait. Stick with 'The Big Lebowski' and it will unveil itself as one of the essential films of the nineties and one of the prizes of your DVD collection.
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