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Big Lebowski, The Print E-mail
Saturday, 01 September 2007

Image Bless the Brothers Coen. Every couple of years, they turn up with an original, distinctive movie, blending much of the best of both independent filmmaking and big studio productions. Their stories are quirky and unusual, whether they're as serious as "Miller's Crossing" or as funny as "Raising Arizona" or as fanciful/peculiar as “O Brother Where Art Thou.” Because their movies are so entertaining, and please audiences and critics alike, they lure in major acting talent with no difficulties.

"The Big Lebowski" is as amiable and ingratiating as The Dude (Jeff Bridges), the movie's central character, though it's a heck of a lot more organized. In fact, because of the kind of movie it is, it's tightly-plotted, beautifully structured. Joel & Ethan Coen's first movie was "Blood Simple," a terrific latter-day film noir with a strong sense of character and place, and a sure knowledge of how place shapes character. Firmly set in 1991 Los Angeles, "The Big Lebowski" is a kind of goof on film noir, or hardboiled private eye movies: the plot our hero finds himself caught up in is very traditional, even familiar. The difference is the hero.

The Dude is not a cool if jaded cop, he's not a burned-out romantic, he's not a sharp, all-knowing private eye with a friend on the force. The Dude is an over-aged hippie, high on pot most of the time, and deeply, I mean man, really deeply, into bowling; he has no visible means of support. He hangs out at the bowling alley with his teammates, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi), though we never see The Dude bowl. They're all big little boys; Walter is obsessed with his service in Vietnam, and though well-intentioned, is a control freak and an eager leaper to conclusions. Donny is a great bowler, but also a vague ex-surfer who so habitually comes in late on conversations that almost the only thing Walter ever says to him is, "Shut up, Donny." And Donny always shuts up. After writing a check for a quart of half-and-half, Dude is unexpectedly roughed up in his own home by two hoods working for the mysterious Jackie Treehorn, who have clearly confused him with someone else of the Dude's real name, which is Jeff Lebowski; Lebowski's wife owes a lot of money to Treehorn, and he wants it. Dude tries to assure them that he is not married, and really the Dude, but one snarls "You're Lewbowski, Lebowski," while the other urinates on Dude's seedy throw rug.

Later at the bowling alley, Dude is upset; that rug really brought the room together, he laments to Walter, who, as usual, has an idea that he is certain will work. (He’s continually demanding of all in earshot, “Am I wrong? Am I wrong?”) What Dude needs to do is visit the other Lebowski, a big wheel in Pasadena Republican circles, and explain it all to him. Surely the Big Lebowski will see the logic in giving Dude enough money for another rug.

But the other Lebowski (David Huddleston) turns out to be a tyrannical, overbearing, wheelchair-bound squillionaire with a magnificent house (the Graystone mansion), a ditsy young trophy wife called Bunny (Tara Reid), and an unctuous assistant named Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who thinks Mr. Lebowski is the greatest thing since Jesus Christ. Mr. Lebowski refuses any responsibility for the loss of Dude's rug, and orders him out—but Dude tells Brandt that the old man said he could have any rug in the place, and he wanders off with a nice one. This is where he assumes everything go back to normal.

No chance. Mr. Lebowski calls him back to the mansion, where he explains Bunny has been kidnapped; he wants Dude to deliver the ransom. Once Walter is involved, this becomes very complicated. Then Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), the haughty, avant-garde artist daughter of The Big Lebowski, has Dude knocked out so she can reclaim the rug, which is actually hers. Then three other thugs, one being porn star Uli (Peter Stormare), surprise Dude in his bathtub and toss a ferret into the tub with him just to give him an example of what happens to people who don’t cooperate. His car keeps getting stolen, and/or damaged, and it was no prize in the first place. All around Dude swirl the complications and characters of a classic mystery thriller, while he himself wanders through it, puzzled but good-natured, rarely getting angry at anyone other than Walter, and he doesn't stay mad at him very long, either.

Although the plot is as tightly-constructed as that of any classic private eye thriller, it's not really crucial to the success of "The Big Lebowski." The plot is what gets the characters through the movie, though some of them become very concerned with what's going on, and this includes the unseen Western-accented narrator the credits call The Stranger (Sam Elliott), whom we meet in person. He clearly considers the Dude something special, starting with his name: "Dude," The Stranger drawls, "now there's a name no one would self-apply where I come from." The Stranger's narration goes on at some length, telling us what an amazing adventure the Dude goes through, finally admitting he's lost his train of thought.

The loudmouthed Walter is also sure that the plot is of great importance; the problem is that he thinks he's running things, constantly convinced he has it all figured out. He never does; every decision he makes, from tossing out his dirty underwear in lieu of the ransom, to confronting a teenaged car thief with the boy's high school test papers, to deciding the Big Lebowski can really walk, is absolutely wrong, and only makes matters worse. He's also living so much in the past he still wears his Vietnam fatigues, and eventually relates everything to his experiences in Vietnam. Only a laid-back dude like The Dude, or a meek little dimwit like Donny would put up with this soft-hearted but iron-tongued bellowing bear. (Based, the an Internet search tells us, on director John Milius.)

Walter packs heat, even at the bowling alley; when Walter is convinced that another player has made a minor infraction of the rules, Walter hauls out his pistol and bellows “you’re about to enter a world of hurt” at the surprised bowler until he backs down. But Walter really likes The Dude, and is convinced he can help him collect the percentage of the ransom that, sooner or later, all the players in the game keep offering the acquiescent Dude. Walter is genuinely hurt when the Dude gets angry at him, mostly because he just doesn't have any other friends. Neither does the Dude, but he's not entirely aware of this.

The Dude is never entirely aware of anything, actually. When the German bad guys, whom everyone identifies as nihilists, dump the ferret in the bathtub, Dude is sure it's a marmot. When a guy in a blue VW beetle, who's been following the Dude, identifies himself as a "brother shamus," the Dude assumes he's an Irish monk. The Dude is very impressed, if confused, by the Big Lewbowski's daughter Maude (Julianne Moore), who has severe bangs and a severe attitude toward everything—though a proclaimed feminist, she thinks "coitus" can be "zesty." But she has her own goals for the Dude.

Maude is even severely colorful. Dude's first glimpse of her is as he's socked in the jaw by her thugs; his next meeting is at her fashionable downtown LA loft (fashionable in 1991, anyway). She's brittle, high-tech (her method of painting beggars description) and avant garde. She and the Dude might as well come from different planets; he simply doesn't have any way of grasping anything about her.

But then, the Dude doesn't worry overmuch about grasping anything. He started out the adventure merely wanting to be reimbursed for a peed-on rug, and never works up much of a head of steam over anything at all, except his occasional outbursts of anger at Walter. The Dude wears what's at hand--usually shorts or sand pants and some kind of wildly mismatched shirt--and treats life as just what happens after you get up in the morning. Somehow, somewhere, he gets enough money to keep him in bowling balls, White Russians and dope; beyond that, nothing much matters. He tends to be insistent that people call him Dude, or The Dude, or El Duderino, rather than Jeff Lebowski or Mr. Lebowski, but after a while, he gives up on that, too. It's just too much bother.

A character like this could be utterly irritating, but Jeff Bridges is one of the most likable actors in movies, and he obviously loves the Dude. (In the production notes, he admits that if he hadn't become an actor, he could have become The Dude. Too late. The Dude exists: he’s based on producer Jim Dowd, whom the Cohens say is a lot like their character, and even calls himself The Dude.) He saunters through the movie, but don't think he's sauntering through the role; the details were in the script, but it's Bridges who brings The Dude to ingratiating life. Maude asks him about his past; he says he was the co-author of the original Port Huron Statement, not the later rewritten version, one of the Seattle Seven, and was for a while a roadie for Metallica. After that, it kind of gets hazy for The Dude.

It may look easy to play a role like this, but it's not; the big trick, which Bridges accomplishes perfectly, is never to play down to the character, never let the audience know that you, the actor, think you're superior to this guy. To Bridges, and so to us, The Dude is not a loser, but a winner on his own foggy terms. There's even something of the Christ figure about him; his goatee and long hair make him vaguely resemble some Protestant images of Jesus, and at the end, the Stranger suggests that maybe The Dude has taken on our sins. (But the Dude says only “The Dude abides.) But mostly, The Dude is just a guy happily drifting through life. It's just that now his life has begun to look like a private eye movie--but he never notices that.

The Coens keep up their straight-faced fooling in an introduction shot for the home video release of “The Big Lebowski.” It’s a short piece featuring (the fictional) Mortimer Young, who claims to be a film preservationist. The Coens are joshing DVD sequences comparing the beat-up materials the preservationist was given with the sterling result. In this case, the famous Toe Scene is shown before and after Young’s team did their wonderful preservation work. He always refers to the movie as “The Great Lebowski.”

There’s a very unusual making-of featurette; the Coens rarely talk about their movies, but they do here, spilling the beans on their intention to stick a very unlikely character (based on a friend) into a Raymond Chandler-esque Los Angeles-based mystery plot, complete with elderly millionaires, their screwy daughters (and wives), suavely threatening rich crooks, hallucinatory sequences and so forth. There are also brief clips of Bridges, Goodman and others talking about the film. It’s so undated, so unlike the usual studio-produced EPK material that you might think it was just filmed, but it was made when the film was.

This is a high-definition DVD; unexpectedly, the increase in definition works extremely well with this film. Scenes move from a bowling alley, to the Dude’s seedy dwelling in a bungalow court, his crappy car, the contrasting homes of two rich, arrogant men and so forth. Then there are those hallucinatory sequences, one of The Dude soaring over night-time Los Angeles, the other a Busby Berkeley-inspired musical sequence involving dancers and the like. In all these, the high definition images burst with life, texture and color; even if you already have “The Big Lebowski” on DVD, consider upgrading to this HD DVD—it’s that good.

The oddest aspect of the tale of “The Big Lebowski” is that it generated its own lively fandom, with people memorizing lines from the film, dressing up as its characters and even holding conventions. In the last few years, there have been at least SEVENTEEN Big Lebowski Conventions all over the country; there’s one in Los Angeles this October. This kind of interest tends to spring up around stories that generate their own convincing reality—Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, etc. This is the first one I know of to be centered on a spoof, and one set in a mostly recognizably-real Los Angeles.

One of the great pleasures of any Coen Brothers movie is that there are no superfluous characters; everyone who shows up is colorfully depicted, and given some vivid traits. Take Jesus Quintanta (John Turturro), for example; he's a rival bowler, and is in the movie for only a couple of scenes, having nothing to do with the main plot. But ye gods is he colorful. He fancies himself the slickest bowler on any lanes, dresses in purple jump suits, and wriggles like a snake as he prepares to bowl, finally licking his ball just before he lets fly. He's full of attitude and challenge, and obviously loves to refer to himself as "Jesus" rather than "Haysoos." He's so flamboyant he even shuts up Walter. Turturro makes this guy as hateful as a handful of wasps, but intensely funny as well. The Coens could make an entire movie with him as the antagonist to some bemused protagonist.

All the actors are fine, some even better than that, like Philip Seymour Hoffman as The Big Lebowski's swooning yes man; he reminded me of Smithers from "The Simpsons," except that he's even more unctuous, even more willing to serve. Hoffman was the clumsy gay kid in "Boogie Nights;" he was terrific there, and he's terrific here. Ben Gazzara turns up as Jackie Treehorn, and he's the classic film noir gangster: sleek, moneyed, has a great house, and treats our hero as a real threat (which, in this case, is pointless). Sam Elliott is The Stranger, the hyper-cowboy narrator and something like a guardian angel to The Dude. The various thugs are each a particular person, even if they have only a few lines. “The Big Lebowski" is remarkably complete.

The Coens wrote "The Big Lebowski" for John Goodman; they wanted to give him a real showcase role, but never intended for Walter to be the ersatz private eye, either. There are few actors who could make Walter this much larger than life, but also this wistful and lonely. His harangues about Vietnam and his lying facedown in the mud to protect the rights of people to eat in diners (as he thunderously claims at one point) are at first funny, and then bittersweet; this guy doesn't want to live in the past--he can't shake the past. Maybe his blowhard ways and eagerness to take over the "case" for The Dude are his ways of trying to deal with the present, but we never know, because sooner rather than later, Walter bellows on again about Vietnam and lying facedown in the mud. (Bridges, Buscemi, Turturro and Elliott are all in roles the Coens wrote for them.)

It's richly photographed by the brilliant Roger Deakins, who adopts a new style appropriate to each successive film; here, it's a kind of glazed California look, slightly sunburned, but also shadowy and noir-ish. The incidental music and the song score are also well done. As the movie opens, the background music is the Sons of the Pioneers' great rendition of "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and, sure enough, there's a tumbleweed, tumbling down a street in Los Angeles, tumbling up a California beach. We then meet The Dude in a supermarket, and the music turns into a Muzak rendition of the same song, returning to the Sons of the Pioneers after The Dude leaves the market. Like Philip Marlowe, he hallucinates: the Dude has two colorful dream sequences, one right after Maude's thugs knock him out; he sees himself flying through the air over Los Angeles, chasing Maude who's riding a flying carpet. A bowling ball turns out to be a problem. Later, he has a Busby Berkeley-inspired dream of bowling-pin-clad dancers, Maude dressed as a Valkyrie, and himself as her bowling instructor. This also features movie history's first point-of-view shot from inside the thumb hole of a rolling bowling ball, at least as far as I know, or care. The special effects in these sequences are, incidentally, perfect.

And so is "The Big Lebowski" in its non-demanding way. People tend to think that because the Coen Brothers make such goofy movies, they're crack-brained auteurs, but no one could make a movie as well-realized as "The Big Lebowski" and be crack-brained in any way. They're obviously careful craftsman and dedicated artists, and anything they ever make, I'll happily go see.

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