The Big Lebowski

The Big LebowskiSynopsis: From the Academy Award-winning Coen brothers (Fargo, True Grit), The Big Lebowski is a hilariously quirky comedy about bowling a severed toe, White Russians and a guy named . . . The Dude. Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski doesn’t want any drama in his life . . . heck, he can’t even be bothered with a job. But, he must embark on a quest with his bowling buddies after his rug is destroyed in a twisted case of mistaken identity. Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro, experience the cultural phenomenon of The Dude in the “#1 cult film of all time!” (The Boston Globe)
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The Big Lebowski 8.5

eyelights: the dialogue. the characters. the plot. the dream sequences.
eyesores: the dénouement.

“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. And that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles. And even if he’s a lazy man – and the Dude was most certainly that. Quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide. But sometimes there’s a man… sometimes, there’s a man. Aw. I lost my train of thought here. But… aw, hell. I’ve done introduced him enough.”

Meet The Dude (“or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing”). Né Jeffrey Lebowski, he’s grown into a simple man with simple expectations. He’s a man who is perfectly content living his simple life, hanging out with his two best friends, bowling, drinking White Russians, and casually wasting time just… being. He doesn’t need much and he doesn’t ask for much.

So when a couple of hoods break into his apartment, mistaking him for another Jeffrey Lebowski, and proceed to soil his carpet, all he wants is for this carpet to be replaced, all he wants is for his life to return to normal so that he can carry on being. So, after being prodded and riled up by his friends, in particular the mercurial Walter (embodied by John Goodman), he decides to pay the “Big” Lebowski a visit.

What he wants is compensation for the micturition of his rug. After all, “that rug really tied the room together”.

And that’s the gist of ‘The Big Lewbowski’: The Dude spends the whole movie trying to replace his carpet – at first by stealing one from the other Jeffrey Lebowski, and then by helping Maude Lebowski recover sums embezzled by Lebowski, the return of which would net him enough bones or clams or whatever you call them to buy himself any other rug he wants.

In fact, The Dude is so obsessed with his rug that he is oblivious to other details, like the fact that his house was broken into, that he was abused, that was beaten, and that he was offered casual sex by a delicious artist. Nothing matters more than this rug, which not only ties the room together, but it ties his life together – without its return, his sense of well-being is out of whack.

What makes ‘The Big Lebowski’ so unique and so fantastic is threefold: 1) the dialogue, 2) the characters, 3) the style.

1. The dialogue is the central figure of ‘The Big Lebowski’, without which none of the characters would have any distinction, without which none of the interactions would have had any flavour.

Ethan and Joel Coen have given each character a specific personality and enforced them with a language that is appropriate to each of them. Note the distinction between the way Maude Lebowski, with her pretentious accent and her usage of a less colourful but more descriptive vocabulary, expresses herself versus the way that The Dude, with his halting, minimalist and limited lingo, speaks:

Maude Lebowski: “Does the female form make you uncomfortable, Mr. Lebowski?”
The Dude: “Uh, is that what this is a picture of?”
 Maude Lebowski: “In a sense, yes. My art has been commended as being strongly vaginal which bothers some men. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina.”
The Dude: “Oh yeah?”
 Maude Lebowski: “Yes, they don’t like hearing it and find it difficult to say whereas without batting an eye a man will refer to his dick or his rod or his Johnson.”
The Dude: “Johnson?”

 

They couldn’t be more different characters, of course, but these distinctions are clearly found even in more similar types such as The Dude and his best friends, Walter and Donny:

The Dude: “Walter… what am I going to tell Lebowski?”
 Walter Sobchak: “I told that fuck down at the league office… who’s in charge of scheduling?”
The Dude: “Walter…”
Donny: “Burkhalter.”
 Walter Sobchak: “I told that kraut a fucking thousand times that I don’t roll on Shabbos!”
The Dude: “Walter…”
Donny: “They already posted it.”
 Walter Sobchak: “Well they can fucking unpost it!”
The Dude: “Who gives a shit! They’re gonna kill that poor woman, man! What am I gonna tell Lebowski?”
 Walter Sobchak: “C’mon Dude, eventually she’ll get sick of her little game and, you know, wander on back.”
Donny: “How come you don’t roll on Saturday, Walter?”
 Walter Sobchak: “I’m shomer shabbos.”
Donny: “What’s that?”
The Dude: “Yeah, and in the meantime, what do I tell Lebowski?”
 Walter Sobchak: “Saturday, Donny, is Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. That means that I don’t work, I don’t drive a car, I don’t fucking ride in a car, I don’t handle money, I don’t turn on the oven, and I sure as shit don’t fucking roll!”
Donny: “Sheesh.”
 Walter Sobchak: “Shomer shabbos!”
The Dude: “Walter, how am I going to…”
 Walter Sobchak: “Shomer fucking shabbos.”
The Dude: “Oh fuck it. I’m out of here.”
 Walter Sobchak: “Come on, Dude…”
 Walter Sobchak: “Fucking BABY…”

 

Even though they’re friends and they all likely have relatively unexceptional IQs, they are easily distinguishable: While The Dude is always focused on what he is trying to convey, Walter lives in the moment and can quickly be distracted by competing thoughts, whereas Donny is always a step behind, as though he were only barely present at the time. Furthermore, The Dude speaks in long, semi-incomplete ideas, whereas Walter suffers from verbal diarrhea and Donny is a total minimalist, keeping himself to mere comments or observations.

Furthermore, the film is hilarious in large part because of the dialogue. While there are numerous gags to amuse the audience, ‘The Big Lebowski’ focuses most of its energies on the moronic, absurd and/or oft-vulgar exchanges between the characters:

Moronic
 Da Fino, Private Snoop: “I’m a brother shamus!”
The Dude: “Brother Seamus? Like an Irish monk?”
 Da Fino, Private Snoop: “What the fuck are you talking about?”

 

Absurd
The Dude: “By the way, do you think that you could give me that $20,000 in cash? My concern is, and I have to, uh, check with my accountant, that this might bump me into a higher, uh, tax…”
 The Big Lebowski: “Brandt, give him the envelope.”
The Dude: “Oh, you’ve already got the check made out, that’s great.”

 

Vulgar
Jesus Quintana: “What’s this day of rest shit? What’s this bullshit? I don’t fuckin’ care! It don’t matter to Jesus. But you’re not foolin’ me, man. You might fool the fucks in the league office, but you don’t fool Jesus. This bush league psyche-out stuff. Laughable, man – ha ha! I would have fucked you in the ass Saturday. I fuck you in the ass next Wednesday instead. Wooo! You got a date Wednesday, baby!”

 

‘The Big Lebowski’ is so chock full of profanity that I’ve had to warn people before recommending it, for fear that it might be overwhelming to them. Heck, even one of its own characters comments on it:

The Stranger: “There’s just one thing, Dude.”
The Dude: “And what’s that?”
The Stranger: “Do you have to use so many cuss words?”
The Dude: “What the fuck you talking about?”
The Stranger: “Okay, Dude. Have it your way.”

And yet, despite the unending stream of profanity, I’ve personally witnessed seniors laughing along with it. All the cussing isn’t necessarily worth the fussing: it turns out that many can enjoy it regardless.

2. The characters are an obvious part of the picture, but they are even more important in ‘The Big Lebowski’ because none of them are interchangeable – everyone has a clearly defined personality that makes them stand out from the rest. Good thing, too, because we spend a lot of time doing very little with them: most of the time, the film’s characters tend to talk about themselves, each other, or the plot.

Fact is, there’s very little action to speak of, even though the film flies by breezily. (That’s called good writing: eat your heart out Michael Bay).

I can’t think of a character in this film who isn’t quirky or neurotic, maybe even slightly mad. It makes for such an unusual combination that the film can sometimes seem populated by the residents of a mental institution; I’ve had people comment about how crazy they all are. And yet, when you look at them individually, most of them are people we’ve encountered, that we know or that are vaguely similar to us. It’s just that being an outsider changes one’s perspective.

 

The Dude:

“Yeah, well. The Dude abides.”

A slacker who makes do with his life and doesn’t demand much from it, The Dude is easy-going but influenceable. He’d be happy just drinking white russians, hanging out with his buddies and bowling (What else is there, really?). He doesn’t even feel the need to work. Sure, he’s slightly detached from reality and lives completely off the radar without knowing it, but he’s doing fairly well, all things considered.

 

Walter:

“Lady, I got buddies who died face down in the muck so that you and I could enjoy this family restaurant!”

A man hobbled by anger issues, perhaps due to his experiences in Vietnam, this is a regular Joe who obviously has a tremendous sense of loyalty to his friends and even his ex – enough so that he still minds her dog and follows her religion. One gets the sense that he would be a terrific companion if not for the fact that he can’t control his temper and that, despite being relatively knowledgeable, tends to do idiotic things.

 

Donny:

“I am the walrus.”

A reserved geek who seems largely absent, perhaps due to ADD, he follows his pack obediently but only gets involved from time to time, and with only an outsider’s perspective on what’s taking place. He’s not a bad bloke at all, but he could irritate anyone expecting more presence. I’ve actually met a few people like this in my time, and I couldn’t stand having to re-explain everything to them because their head was always elsewhere. The Dude, thankfully, is a more patient man.

 

The “Big” Lebowski:

“Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost. My advice is to do what your parents did; get a job, sir. The bums will always lose. Do you hear me, Lebowski?”

An arrogant, self-important man who obviously married for the money, and will do anything to make himself look good, he’s alienated his step-daughter and has a tendency to bend the rules in his favour. This is not a pleasant man, but he’s no doubt the type to be appreciated in certain conservative circle: one who boasts of being an achiever and maintains that appearance at all costs – but who has much to hide under the surface.

 

Brandt:

“Mr. Lebowski asked me to repeat that: her life is in your hands.”

The “Big” Lebowski’s aide, he’s a man who aspires to greater things and sees his current gig as a way to something greater. He might be a Director of Communications someday: his efforts at spinning messages and his attempts at providing the image that others expect of him indicate that he could manage this. If he continues to kiss butt, that is. He feels like a complete “yes man” – you know, the type that we see every day at work, in the business world, in political circles.

 

Maude:

“My father and I don’t get along, he doesn’t approve of my lifestyle and, needless to say, I don’t approve of his.”

A feminist artiste who is extremely well-connected in art circles and who carries about her an air of pretension irrespective of what she does, she is one of the most flamboyant characters in The Dude’s story – and when it’s not herself, then it’s the people surrounding her. She is intelligent, self-assured and condescending. She has a unique, liberal perspective on life, including totally unflinching socio-political ideals that lives and breathes. She wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. And vice-versa.

 

Bunny:

“I’ll suck your cock for a thousand dollars.”

She’s a lost little girl who left her home on the farm for greater fortunes in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, as many do, she discovered that Los Angeles is a fool’s paradise, and only few people can succeed the way that their idols did: she ended up in the porn industry before marrying her millionaire husband. All she wants is to have fun and be privy to the funds that will allow her to live that carefree lifestyle. She’s a floozy with little sense of morality or shame.

And that’s just some of the key characters in our story. They don’t seem that out of the ordinary on paper, but the way that they interact with one another brings about more flavours than one could imagine at just one glance. It’s like looking at the individual ingredients to a delicious recipe and observing how commonplace they are on their own – however, once brought together in just the right way, it can make for quite the delicious dish.

Of course, this all depends on the performances: you can write the parts, but only the perfect actors can truly incarnate them and breathe life into them. I don’t think that there’s one miscast actor in the bunch – even the most minor parts have their perfect players in them, all the way down to Aimee Mann as the nihilist girlfriend (she looks the part, feels the part… I can’t imagine anyone else in her place. And I didn”t even recognize her – I had to read this somewhere)

In particular, our triumvirate of The Dude, Walter and Donny are absolutely sublime:

– Jeff Bridges is utterly pitch-perfect in the part. Who else could have played a grown-up slacker with such conviction as Bridges, really? I seriously can’t fathom another person in the part of a 16 year old in a 40-year-old’s body doing it nearly as well as he did. He was totally committed to it, too: I remember hearing that simply let himself go for the shooting of the picture, gained eight and everything, and somewhat became The Dude. Well, whether he likes it or not, he’ll likely forever be associated with him.

– John Goodman is unforgettable as Walter. One moment a fuming powder keg, the other a calming, zen-like force, he played him like a big baby – a complete slave to his mood swings. I’ve always liked John Goodman, but this will always be the part I’ll remember him for: I knew someone just like this, and it hits home every time I watch the picture. Walter may be a fictional character, but he’s painfully real to me. And if he sang karaoke, he’d be just that much more perfect.

– Steve Buscemi is amazing here. This is his second-best part after his Mr. Pink from “Reservoir Dogs’ – his career-defining role, the one that most people took notice of him for. But he’s nonetheless brilliant here – he’s unbelievably subtle in his interpretation of Donny. He had to, of course, given how few lines and moments that his Donny had, but few people would have pulled it off the way that he did. With very little, he managed to steal many scenes. he’s absolutely brilliant.

3. Finally, there’s the film’s style. I couldn’t possibly go into the technicalities of it – I never went to film school, you see. ‘The Big Lebowski’ is told to us by a bystander and it kind of feels like a dream, like storytime for mature audiences in some ways.

Not only is it book-ended by a narration, which immediately puts us in the position of observers, as listeners while the story is told to us by our bystander, a stranger (who may or may not be adding his own flourishes to the The Dude’s adventures), but we are also privy to a couple of extremely amusing segments that are dreamlike in nature, completely abstract and absurd, rife with all sorts of imagery – some subtle, some less so.

The Coens are already quite original in the way that they approach things, even in their more sober pictures, but it’s breathtaking to watch someone’s creativity unleashed as it is here; let’s just say that the Coens let their imagination run wild with ‘The Big Lebowski’. And, quite frankly, that’s likely part of the appeal for so many of us: the filmmakers were obviously having a lot of fun putting this one together, and we’re only happy to join them in their zeal for ninety minutes.

Thankfully, while the film never really looks like reality to us, it also doesn’t look so outlandish that we think we’re watching a fantasy; the story feels and looks real enough that we can believe it and go for the ride. If anything, it’s a mind trip.

By the time that The Dude is knocked unconscious and we see him in a bizarre sequence where he’s being chased by nihilists with large scissors, we know that this is all playing out in his mind – we can just sit back and enjoy the trip. And when it merges into his reality, we are back on the ground with him.

‘The Big Lebowski’ is so crafty in the way that it takes us on this adventure, one that often goes in circles, squiggly lines, side-by-side, and eventually to its ultimate destination, that it’s no wonder that it’s become such a sensation since being released in the mid-’90s. It only loses steam in the last few moments, as it wraps up its mystery – otherwise, it’s full steam ahead from the moment that we meet our hero (okay, I won’t say a hero… ’cause, what’s a hero?).

At the time of its release, very few people actually saw ‘The Big Lebowski’. I remember hearing great things about it from cinema magazines, and when a video store customer came in one night, raving about how good it was, I just had to see it; the moment that it was available on home video, I picked it up. I was an instant fan: I already liked the Coens’ more zany stuff, but I like absurd humour anyway, and this picture has plenty of it – and, even better, its finer graces shine more and more over time.

Since then, tons of people have also seen it and grown to love it. Were they drawn to it because of the Coens’ many other successes, or did it have a life of its own? Did it spread like wildfire, through word-of-mouth? I’ll likely never know. But it remains that, today, there are groups dedicated to the appreciation of ‘The Big Lebowski’, festivals where people congregate to dress up like their favourite characters, talk about the film, bowl and, of course, watch the film.

Recently, I had the tremendous opportunity of renting out a cinema to screen ‘The Big Lebowski’ to a large group of friends and family. Some of them, amazingly enough, had never seen the film before. Most had – and were as enthusiastic about seeing it on the big screen for what was likely the first (and possibly last) time as I was.

Even some 15 years later, irrespective of generational divides, ‘The Big Lebowski’ entertained us as only it ever could. And, for one day only, it brought all of us together. I will always remember it fondly for that.

But, beyond this unforgettable moment, ‘The Big Lebowski’ is, in my estimation, one of the most original and funniest films that I’ll ever see.

The Dude: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

Okay, Dude. Have it your way.

Date of viewing: January 13, 2013

One response to “The Big Lebowski

  1. Pingback: The Fall | thecriticaleye·

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