Film Scouts Reviews

"The Big Lebowski"

by Karen Jaehne

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The Big Lebowski is a subversive vision of male-bonding and bowling. If you discount narrative - the kind of thing that never got in the way of a Raymond Chandler movie, after all - it's a dandy defense of a stoned state of mind. The Coen Brothers have never been so capricious, riffing on all the elements of that singularly Hollywood genre fathered by the French and mothered by Los Angeles - film noir. This is not their first foray into noir territory, but it is their funniest. It also sports a soundtrack as irresistible as a doobie on a nude beach.

A certain Jeff Lebowski is a wealthy Angelino with a trophy wife who owes money to the kind of folks who'd rather kill than collect. These collectors move in on a different Jeff Lebowski, known in bowling circles as The Dude, and shake him down for cute little Bunny Lebowski's bad debts. Adding insult to injury, one of the men relieves himself on the Dude's rug. Outraged, the Dude goes to see Mrs. Lebowski's husband to demand recompense.

The meeting of the two Lebowskis is a farcical collision of American values: rich old Lebowski disdains the Dude's leisurely lifestyle, while the Dude is unimpressed by the other's conspicuous consumption and servile assistant. Jeff the Dude jauntily listens to the other Lebowski's self-righteous condemnation, then tells one of the servants that Mr. Lebowski has offered him any rug in the house. He departs with a Persian carpet on his shoulder.

This carpet is nothing short of magic in the way it's soon taken from the Dude's dwelling. Yet another Lebowski has caused its disappearance - the mad Maude, with pretensions of decadence and a low opinion of big Daddy Lebowski and his spendthrift bimbo, now Maude's stepmother. When Bunny the bimbo gets kidnapped, Maude is a prime suspect.

The big Lebowski complicates the Dude's search for his rug by hiring him to find Bunny. Since the Dude lost his short term memory circa 1968, all this searching takes on epic dimensions. We follow the Dude through various states of consciousness. We're even treated to his dream-states, every time he gets worked over. These sequences are hilarious fantasies of bowling, babes and Busby Berkley, which almost make it worth the Dude's while to be knocked out.

Jeff Bridges is nothing short of brilliantly convincing when it comes to being... well, being stoned. The Dude has never been ashamed to inhale. With shaggy hair and a White Russian-fed gut, Bridges aspires to nothing greater than joining his buddy Walter, zoned-out since losing the Vietnam war, to winning the regional bowling championship. John Goodman is predictably perfect as Walter, proprietor of a security business that seems none too secure. Bridges and Goodman create a credible team, as typical of our time as, say, Jackie Gleason and Art Carney were for theirs.

The usual suspects have been rounded up for the cast, and the Coens tart them up to strut around in juicy little roles, like contestants on a beauty pageant circuit wanting attention even more than the crown. Turturro demonstrates his bowling alley research in a Hispanic swashbuckler called Jesus with a jalapeno accent and noteworthy fingernail. Jon Polito plays a low-budget gumshoe, tracking down Bunny to show her photos of the flatlands to inspire homesickness and get her away from the Big Lebowski. Peter Stormare is back again as a nihilistic German (Has anybody ever objected to anti-Teutonism in cinema?). Ben Gazzara is too suntanned, too slick for the bowling alley - in short, a pornographer. What's with 1997's obsession with porn, L.A. and the seventies?

The Coens have developed an affection for the small pleasures of the working class. This gave the characters of Fargo an unexpected charm, which emerges again. Neither Lebowski can be accused of being "working class," since labor is a fairly strange concept for either of them. Still, our hero is the bum, not the billionaire. Lebowski the Dude proves to be a bigger man than the other Lebowski, who is not only your garden-variety rich hypocrite, but profoundly fraudulent and possibly even lying about needing a wheelchair - woooops! See, that's what happens when you start thinking like Walter that the whole world is phony. It's easy to embarrass yourself.

Is the Dude beyond embarrassment? Affirmative: miles beyond, light-years removed. He's been visited by amazing grace. In keeping with the noir farce, the Dude's integrity, like that of Sam Spade, is his most ironic characteristic and what gets him into the most interesting trouble.

The movie itself displays an amazing grace in its balancing act, a bit giddy but with consummate control every step of its loopy way. Cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Rick Heinrichs deserve mucho credit for managing a weird but dazzling consistency in style: from the bowling alley to the art world, from the Greystone mansion to the Dude's funky apartment. My only complaint has to do with the framing of the film within a narrative by a cowboy straight from central casting with a deep radio voice to introduce and close out the story behind a shot of a tumble weed rolling across the desert into urban LA. It's too self-conscious, too arch, too much of an unnecessary device.

Anything called Lebowski ought to be big and must be funny. The Coens succeed: it's formally dazzling, delirious in content. The operative metaphor for Los Angeles - the bowling alley - is viewed from the p.o.v. of a bowling ball truckin' down an unpredictable lane and making us stand up and cheer when it doesn't gutter. 

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