Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen || Produced by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Screenplay by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen || Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, John Turturro, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Elliott
Music by: Carter Burwell || Cinematography: Roger Deakins || Editing by: Tricia Cooke, Roderick Jaynes || Country: United States, United Kingdom || Language: English
Running Time: 119 minutes
Much like with every traditional, absurdist-satire by the Coen Brothers, the cult comedy classic, The Big Lebowski, has more going for it than a bunch of eccentric characters saying and doing hilarious things. The Big Lebowski (TBL) has been widely recognized as a deep, multi-layered narrative that explores various 1990s societal themes, aging 1970s values, and spouts a hilarious satirical deconstruction of film noir. Due to its inherent parody-structure and narrative limitations, it ends in a messy, disorganized fashion, but with Coen Bros films like TBL, it’s important to recognize that the journey is what matters. The Dude and his wacky southern California adventure is one of those cult films you have to see for modern cinematic comedy literacy, and as far as oddball, idiosyncratic movies go, it’s one of the funnest, most entertaining comedies out there.
TBL follows one Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), known formally by his peers as “The Dude,” or “His Dudeness,” or “Duder” or “El Duderino,” if you’re not into the whole brevity thing — a lazy, laid back, easygoing ex-hippie living in the sun-soaked hills of southern California. He passes his plethora of unemployed free-time bowling with his friends and league teammates, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman, in one of his best roles), an aggressive, mentally unstable Vietnam vet who treats his league’s bowling rules with as much reverence as his extremely sacred (adopted) Jewish faith, and the quiet, mild-mannered Theodore Donald “Donny” Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi), who is most memorable for frequently inquiring into the matters of his other two friends to ask about parts of the movie’s story he missed, only to be constantly told to, “Shut the fuck up, Donny!” by Walter, and for being the most normal character in the whole show. The Dude and friends get involved in a hair-brained scheme of money, kidnapping, and ransom through sheer coincidence, and what follows and the types of characters they meet can only be described as seriously weird. And quite hilarious.
Aside from the great jokes and situations that result from this setup, TBL is also a satirical take on classic film noir. The film has been called a “sun-drenched noir” or a “daytime noir” by film scholars in reference to the manner in which the plot unfolds. Many of the plot-devices found in TBL are the same as those found in classic Hollywood noirs of the 1940s-1950s like Double Indemnity (1944) or The Big Sleep (1946); note the scenario where the protagonist (Bridges) meets a rich old man (David Huddleston) at his estate, where he is informed of a crime that must be solved, or a seductive femme fatale who seduces the hero for her own purposes (Julianne Moore), as well as the narrative’s criminal conspiracy structure.
However, in being a Coen Bros. satirical comedy, and a postclassical story at that, all these various plot-points are executed as gags, and the crime-solving dialogue is full of sarcasm and sardonic humor. Whereas most traditional noirs and neo-noirs feature aggressive, take-charge protagonists who drive the plot and seek to solve the mystery at all costs, TBL turns this trope on its head by having its hero, the Dude, be the laziest, most slow-moving son of a bitch imaginable. Bridges’ character responds to the urgent crime plot with disinterest and confusion. He is barely able to advance the plot on his own, which unfolds due to a series of bizarre chance events and inappropriate aggressive actions on the part of Walter, and instead is left scratching his head as he struggles to comprehend just what the hell’s going on and why he should even care. When he does respond with some form of drive or intent, it’s almost always as a last resort out of fear for his own safety, or because an alleged kidnapper drops a ferret in his bathtub while he’s bathing.
The only problem with the movie is that the story’s climax feels like a dud because it is trying to satirize the classic “big reveal” found in so many noir features, by lacking any sort of closure or satisfying revelation. The ending is by design a complete anticlimactic mess. While this is in keeping with the movie’s running theme of being a comedic take on film noir, the ending doesn’t feel as satisfying as if it had taken itself seriously. Fans of the film will contend this is the most symmetrical ending, the one that fits the film’s overall tone the best, and they may be right, but the fact remains that TBL could have been one of the best films of all time if the climax had any substance.
Still, The Big Lebowski is worth seeing for its strength as a comedy alone. There are few comedies funnier or more quotable than this one, and fewer comedies still that have characters this memorable. Its ending is only disappointing for the fact that the rest of the movie is so strong. The narrative’s surprising depth never ceases to impress, making it hard to discuss the film in its entirety in one review — I haven’t even had time to analyze the movie’s creative dream sequences and great, eclectic soundtrack! While No Country for Old Men (2007) remains the Coen Bros’ best film, The Big Lebowski represents their overarching career style the best, and is the best summary of their trademark absurdist tone. Looking back on it now, it’s perplexing why the film was so luke-warmly received by critics and the box office when it was first released, but then again, it wasn’t the first time nor will it be the last that a great film wasn’t appreciated out of the gate. The Big Lebowski earns its cult fame and then some.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: A great set of diverse characters, a strong soundtrack, and wacky cinematography make this a comedy adventure worth investing in from beginning to awkward end. Many characters are caricatures, but they each contribute the right amount of eclectic humor to the story, and our trio of main characters are some of the genre’s best. The story acts as a clever satire of film-noir, taking all the key elements that make up the subgenre and turning them on their head for hilarious results. Inject some social themes about 1970s-1990s American culture and you’re all set!
— However… the ending is disappointing and lacks any sense of closure. I understand it is intentional.
—> RECOMMENDED, but that’s just like, uh, my opinion, man.
? Fuck it, Dude, let’s go bowling.