The Big Lebowski
In the Coen Brothers' hands, chaos never looked so good.
Thursday, March 12, 1998
Few filmmakers could take a plot as thin as the one found in the comedy The Big Lebowski and make it work. But few filmmakers have the imagination and style of Ethan and Joel Coen, the movie''s creators.
Around a simple premise--mistaken identity--the Coens craft a hilarious, often fantastic celebration of the mundane in their signature comedic-absurdist style. As they do in all their films, the Coens amplify the chaos of everyday life, making it, rather than the characters, the focus of the movie. Although The Big Lebowski is not their best work, it still showcases two of Hollywood''s most unique talents and is well worth the price of a ticket.
What little plot there is goes like this: A burned-out loser named The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is mistaken for a millionaire named Lebowski by thugs who beat him up. When The Dude confronts the real Lebowski about this encounter, he finds himself involved in the apparent kidnapping of Lebowski''s nymphomaniacal wife, Bunny. The Dude consults his bowling partner Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), an unstable, observant Jewish/Polish Catholic who left part of his mind in Vietnam, for advice. The two losers set out together to find Lebowski''s wife.
The plot in The Big Lebowski is not actually intended to engage the audience (which is good, because it doesn''t). Instead it serves simply as a vehicle for The Dude and Sobchak to encounter wonderfully eccentric characters who, in the place of plot, serve as the substance of The Big Lebowski.
The Dude meets the millionaire''s daughter Maude (Julianne Moore), a radical feminist with an English accent who wants to eradicate the world''s fear of the word "vagina"; Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), a convicted Latino sex offender who approaches Wednesday night bowling with a certain aggressive carnality; and a group of effete German nihilists who do strange things with marmots.
Other supporting characters are Lebowski''s assistant, Brandt, brilliantly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman who recently appeared in Boogie Nights, and Donny (Steve Buscemi) a sad bowling partner of The Dude and Sobchak. These supporting characters are extreme and well-acted, a combination that is hilarious when contrasted with The Dude''s stoned simplicity.
The Big Lebowski is punctuated by brilliantly imaginative dream sequences and shots that serve no purpose other than to entertain. One scene is filmed looking out through the finger hole in a bowling ball that is rolling toward pins. Another is a Busby Berkeley-esque dance number with Julianne Moore dressed as Brnhilde.
Were the plot tighter, these sequences would be nothing more than digressions, but in the context of The Big Lebowski, they work beautifully. The Coen brothers revel in the chaos of everyday life, and in that chaos, they find comedy.
Throughout the movie, there is an understated embrace of absurdity, particularly through Sobchak, a truly unstable character who clings desperately to anything that can impose order on chaos. In one scene, he pulls a gun on another bowler he suspects is breaking the rules; later, Sobchak does battle with the nihilists, thugs who reject rules. Those who embrace the chaos, however, are truly funny in their extremeness.
The Big Lebowski is too long. In certain segments where the supporting cast and the dream sequences do not appear, things get boring very quickly. But overall, the Coens deliver.
As in Blood Simple, Fargo, and Raising Arizona, they rely on their own cleverness and on a stable of very talented, unglamorous actors to bring their films to life. Their characters and stories are often extreme and over-the-top, yet feel comfortably entertaining.
And therein lies the appeal: The Coen''s stories and characters, chaotic and bizarre though they may be, are often more familiar than we care to admit. The Big Lebowski is peopled by lunatics, freaks and weirdos--in other words, just plain folks.