Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Big Lebowski - 1998

"The Big Lebowski" - 1998
Dir. by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen - 1 hr. 57 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

"The Big Lebowski" is a tough film to write about, much less assign any kind of a rating to.  Part of the reason for that is that it's one of the most written-about films since "Pulp Fiction."  There are several books about the movie; even more than a decade after it was initially released, there are boxed gift sets and calendars and festivals for this film.  It's a very rare beast, one that seems to have outlived it's context.  Even rarer: it's not a "geek" film either.  The Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings franchises all have inspired that sort of fanaticism, to the point where if you showed up at a comic book convention, you'd be disappointed if you didn't find in-costume representatives of each franchise's respective fan-bases present.  But "The Big Lebowski?"

The first time that I watched this film (when it was released), I was a little underwhelmed.  I don't want to imply disappointment, I enjoyed "The Big Lebowski" thoroughly.  As strange as it seems, a lot of people were in the same boat initially.  The Coen Brothers' previous film was "Fargo," which also was the mainstream success that everyone had been waiting for from them.  It was also a critical success, winning two Oscars and having been nominated for five more.  In case you haven't seen "Fargo," I'll just say that the tone was a little different.  That was a very dark film, with it's darkness tempered mildly by the silly accents and Midwestern setting.  And this was the expectation for the Coen Brothers, many people having seemingly forgotten the humor and silliness of "Raising Arizona" and "The Hudsucker Proxy."  Looking back, it's a lot easier to see the Coen Brothers' pattern of trading off between very tense, dark movies with lighter fare.  At the time, "Lebowski" just confused people.  It wasn't what anyone was expecting from the duo, and while it did okay at the box office (roughly $28 million), it wasn't a runaway hit.

So what happened between then and now that turned it into a must-see cult classic?  I can't speak for everyone, but after I'd watched "Lebowski" for the first time, it kind of nagged at me until I broke down and saw it again.  And freed from the yoke of expectations, I liked it a lot more.  A LOT more.  Once I was able to view "The Big Lebowski" on it's own merit, it became clear that it had a lot to offer.  The plot is enough to keep the parts moving, but it's not exactly the focus of the film.  The protagonist, The Dude (Jeff Bridges), is referred to as possibly the laziest man in all of Los Angeles, which means that it's unlikely the story is going to be goal-driven.  He gets dragged into problems, and then talked into exacerbating them.  The Dude is more concerned about his bowling league (one in which one of his teammates pulls a gun on an opposing team in an argument about a scratch).  The real joy of the film is the batch of unique characters, The Dude and Walter (John Goodman) in particular, being dragged into detective work that they have no business doing.  The Dude gets along (or abides, I should say), surviving calamity through no particular skill.

The plot is good enough, the dialogue and characters sparkle (as much as a pack of foul-mouthed middle-aged bowlers can), and that leaves the visual element as the other strongest point.  The Coen Brothers have a strong ability for visual stylization.  You can see it in good films like "Fargo," or in less well-received films like "The Hudsucker Proxy."  It's a gift that has stayed with them throughout their career.  The easiest (and showiest) scenes to talk about are the pair of dream sequences.  The first is fun, the second is a Busby Berkeley bowling-themed spectacular that borrows elements from the film-within-a-film, "Logjammin.'"  Talking about visuals like these is kind of pointless; both sequences are jammed with surreal settings, but they're not non sequiturs.  The first leads into plot points that develop later on, and the second one is a sort of a recap of the things that are hanging over the Duder's head at the time, and also leads into the rest of the film.

There are a number of other elements that I could get into, but would run the risk of turning this into a novel. But just a few of the other things I love about this movie: the soundtrack, Julianne Moore's affected accent, the "brother shamus" exchange, The Dude's car's story arc, Jesus Quintana, Jackie Treehorn's house, and what cell phones looked like in the early 1990's.

Similar to the problem I had with assigning a rating to "Clerks," how can you be objective about a film you've seen twenty or more times?  It's not a perfect film, but I can't think of a single thing that might have improved it (and I've read a number of books related to the film - the level of thought that went into making this film is impressive).  I guess the fact that I've watched it so many times removes the need to think about it in those terms.  It's "The Big Lebowski," one of my favorite films.  It's a singular, unique piece of film-making. It might not be to everyone's taste, but there are plenty of us who would disagree with you.

4.5 / 5 - Blu-Ray

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