Published on November 14th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
The Big Lebowski 
Summary: The Coen brothers exhaust every filmmaking trademark in their arsenal to make arguably the funniest movie of the 1990s. The film's oddball characters are as perfectly cast as they were written, especially Bridges and Goodman who melt into their roles.
R | 119 min.
Director: Joel Coen | Screenplay: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore
Distribution: Gramercy Pictures
U.S. Box Office: $17,451,873 (#96 for 1998)
Joel & Ethan Coen have proven to have perhaps the biggest toolboxes in Hollywood today. No filmmakers since Stanley Kubrick have shown the ability to constantly experiment with various genres but also keep a signature voice, while collecting critical praise and box office earnings. With the release of their crime thriller Fargo in 1996 — now rightly considered an American classic — the Coens joined that elite list of writers/directors that transcended the stars in their movies. In 2000, audiences didn’t line up to see O Brother, Where Art Thou? because it was a George Clooney movie, but because it was a Coen brothers movie.
Nestled between those two mainstream favorites, the Coens found a creative sweet spot, producing a film that would come to define cult. Literally becoming a religion to some fans.
The Big Lebowski follows Jeff Lebowski, AKA: the Dude (Jeff Bridges), a Los Angeles-based middle-aged burnout that unwittingly becomes entangled in a kidnapping plot after he’s mistaken for a millionaire who shares his name. When the Dude isn’t unwinding with a roach and a cassette tape of whale sounds, or using a check to purchase half and half at Ralph’s supermarket, he’s bowling with his buddies Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi). As he tries to get reparations for a stolen rug (“That really tied the room together.”), the Dude meets a litany of characters that either require his help or mean to do him harm.
“‘With friends like these…,’ huh Gary?,” Dude asks the bowling alley bartender in one scene, getting to the core of many of his own problems but also one of the film’s strongest assets: the bickering friendship between its main characters. The Coens have always had a gift for writing believably tight-knitted partnerships — shown among the Soggy Bottom Boys in O Brother and by Hi & Ed McDunnough in 1989’s Raising Arizona — but rarely will you find a fictional friendship as entertaining as that of Dude and Walter.
From their very foundations, these men are complete opposites. Coming of age in the 1960s, Dude, a lifelong west coast liberal, was co-authoring The Port Huron Statement (“The original. Not the compromised second draft.”), while Walter was serving the U.S. Army in the jungles of Vietnam (“Me and Charlie, eyeball to eyeball.”). Bridges plays the Dude with the calm of a zen master, although the character ends up blowing his fuse in nearly every scene because of the maladroit suggestions of Walter.
The role of Walter was written by the Coens for Goodman, and represents the extreme pro-war attitude that would come to define “patriotism” in the years immediately following 9/11. Watching The Big Lebowski today, it would seem the Coens predicted the coming rise of aggressive American jingoism, in what will go down as perhaps their best original character. But the beauty of this film is the complete lack of pretentiousness under which it operates.
Set in 1991, as America battles Iraq for the first time, The Big Lebowski offers up commentary on Zionism, ignorant politics, the power of wealth and the disconnection often present between artists and reality — but you don’t need to see any of that unless you want to. If you want to simply view this film through the lens of a stoner buddy comedy, it doesn’t take away from the end result one iota. For the sake of “the whole brevity thing,” it’s just a really fucking funny movie.
Goodman’s performance alone goes down as one of the best comedic turns ever given. Ever since his breakthrough co-starring role on ABC’s Roseanne, Goodman has been adept at using his imposing stature to both intimidate and get laughs. The role of Walter simply seems to be the one he was born to play. In many of Goodman’s scenes, he ends up yelling to Donny or the Dude — not always AT them — usually because he gets fired up on a dime and equates absolutely everything to his time “in the muck” of Vietnam. When Walter is wound up, Goodman’s voice booms like a grenade, but in his final scene, we see the character’s warmth as he embraces the Dude.
Philosophically, Walter’s views cover the gamut, but like many Americans, he takes his constitutional rights seriously. In one outstanding scene, Walter is told by a waitress at a diner to keep his voice down, to which he angrily rebukes, “Oh, please dear! For your information: the Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint!” He counters his violent knee-jerk tendencies in another scene, by quoting Zionist philosopher Theodor Herzl, “If you will it, it is no dream,” after Donny rolls a strike.
The Coens skewer many popular philosophies in The Big Lebowski, by showing glaring contradictions among those who follow them. The film gives us a group of German nihilists who also happen to be crybabies, shouting, “It is not fair!,” when the plot doesn’t go their way. We also see a prideful capitalist posing as a self-made millionaire, while in reality he’s a lousy businessmen who only receives a “reasonable allowance” from his estranged daughter. Then there’s the pornographer who self-aggrandizes his profession as “dealing in publishing, entertainment and political advocacy.”
Standing among the lineup of phonies that dot The Big Lebowski’s cast is one of the realest main characters you’ll ever meet. The Dude is a rare fictional figure in the fact that he leads a fruitless, apparently boring life but shows no motivation or desire to change that. When he’s suddenly caught up in a plot with more twists and turns than a Paul Auster novel, Dude doesn’t appear interested in the least. In a lighthearted crime picture like this, the lead character would typically be thrilled by the action and intrigued by the sudden excitement in their life but the Dude just wants to get his rug back and exit stage left. From playing a broken down country singer to the President of the United States, Bridges has rarely had a difficult time embodying a character, and this aging stoner fits him like an ugly cardigan.
Other heavyweight actors that appear in the film include Julianne Moore as a pompous yet charming feminist artist and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman as an uptight yes-man to the wealthy Lebowski. Both of their performances are spot-on, as you’d expect, each attaching a perfect accent to their characters. Much credit must go to Coen brothers favorite John Turturro who, as a flashy bowler/registered sex offender named Jesus (not pronounced “Hay-Zeus”) Quintana, turns basically a throwaway character into an indelible part of The Big Lebowski. His fuschia-tinted bowling jumpsuit and sexualized post-strike celebrations make him stand out even against the film’s already crowded cast of brash players.
Perhaps the unsung hero of this well-constructed picture is its most mild-mannered figure — Sam Elliott. Clad with his trademark mustache and donning full cowboy attire, Elliott serves as the film’s narrator while also interacting with the Dude onscreen in a couple of scenes. Elliott’s narration — although rambling — is so engrossing that you’re immediately drawn into the first frames of the picture. “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, he fits right in there,” Elliott conveys while introducing the Dude.
In a making-of featurette for the film’s DVD release, the Coens said Elliott wondered “what the hell” he was adding to the movie, but you couldn’t imagine The Big Lebowski without Elliott’s calming drawl.
Clearly I could write about the film’s rich characters for pages but it’s only part of what makes this picture a masterpiece for the Coens. The soundtrack, hand-picked by T-Bone Burnett in his first collaboration with the brothers, gives each character their own musical palette in addition to setting the film in a cultural limbo. If it weren’t for the opening exposition and several mentions of “Saddam and the Iraqis,” we would have no clue about the time period this movie exists in. Cuts from Bob Dylan, Henry Mancini and Creedence Clearwater Revival line The Big Lebowski, keeping in line with the throwback style of the movie’s plot.
The Big Lebowski is a nod to the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and the private-eye pictures of 1940s cinema. The movie doesn’t drag for a second as its plot points fall like a series of well-placed dominoes. The Dude is whipped from one situation to the next, giving the film an episodic feel. We constantly meet new characters as the kidnapping storyline gets more difficult to keep track of. In the end, everything is resolved but The Big Lebowski is definitely one that gets better with repeated viewings.
It might seem like a silly buddy flick about a bunch of low-life bowlers but what Joel & Ethan Coen created here is an extremely smart, meticulously planned picture filled with endlessly quotable lines and devoted performances the likes we don’t often see in comedies. I suppose there is an element of ‘You either get it or you don’t’ with The Big Lebowski but satire doesn’t get much more entertaining than this.
*All images: Universal Pictures / CinemaSquid.com