Friday, April 24, 2020

Rewind: The Big Lebowski

Doug Harris, president of the Houston Film Critics Society, continues to thumb his nose at COVID-19 by hanging on his balcony spirit-lifting banners emblazoned with quotes from classic movies. And once again, I’ve been inspired by my favorite currently sitting president to rummage through my hard drive to provide an appropriate accompaniment. This time, it’s my original 1998 review of The Big Lebowski. And remember: It’s, like, just my opinion, man.

And now for something completely different: The Big Lebowski, an outrageously funny and indescribably weird shaggy-dog comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, the moviemaking siblings who last enthralled us with the darkly ironic absurdism of their Oscar-winning Fargo.

Not that the Coens have ventured too far afield from what they’ve done in the past. The anything-goes inventiveness of their latest effort recalls the high-velocity lunacy of their Raising Arizona. And the vaguely Raymond Chandleresque pattern of their new movie’s plot reflects their obvious affection for fiction of the hard-boiled school. (Blood Simple, their first movie, had its roots in James M. Cain, while Miller’s Crossing, their affectingly melancholy drama about lethally competitive gangsters, is a superior Dashiell Hammett pastiche.) Even so, as The Big Lebowski shambles along from one bizarre incident to the next, with a randomness that is more apparent than real, the comedy seldom covers familiar ground. Which is one of several good reasons why it’s so enjoyably loopy.

Jeff Bridges, an actor whose subtle sense of timing serves him equally well in dramatic and comedic roles, is extremely engaging as The Dude, a chronically stoned layabout who seems forever lost in the 1970s. (The movie is set during the early ‘90s, on the eve of the Gulf War, for reasons that the Coen brothers feel no need to share with us.) The character’s real name is Jeff Lebowski, which turns out to be a problem when two tough customers mistake him for a bilious millionaire with the same name. The bad boys break into The Dude’s comfortably seedy apartment and demand payment for debts incurred by the wife of Jeffrey Lebowski. When The Dude insists that he has neither a wife nor a disposable income, one of the thugs urinates on his rug.

Under normal circumstances, such rude behavior would be easily forgotten, if not forgiven, by The Dude. But the rug meant a lot to him — “It really tied the room together!” — and he’s determined to make someone pay for a replacement. So he somehow manages to locate the palatial home of the more upscale Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston). Not surprisingly, the millionaire gives The Dude the bum’s rush. Very surprisingly, the millionaire later summons The Dude back to his mansion, to seek our hero’s help in retrieving his trophy wife, Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), from kidnappers.

The Dude is singularly ill-suited for the role of private detective. Indeed, if he had his way, he would simply continue to concentrate on his favorite pastimes: smoking, drinking and, along with a few buddies, bowling. In this, he is very much like the Coen brothers themselves, who regard their ridiculously complex storyline merely as an excuse to place The Dude in the orbit of various oddballs and evil-doers. To say that The Big Lebowski rambles would be to give it more credit for momentum than it deserves. Even so, despite a final quarter-hour that is unduly protracted and, worse, insufficiently inspired, the movie is very amusing in its what-the-hell pointlessness, and often hilarious in its contrast between the blissed-out Dude and the desperate characters he encounters.

As Walter Sobchak, the hot-tempered Vietnam vet who is the Dude’s best friend and bowling partner, John Goodman offers furious comic bluster as a sharp counterpoint to Bridges’ foggy-headed nonchalance. Julianne Moore plays the movie’s most rational and tightly-focused character, Maude Lebowski, the millionaire’s sardonic daughter, who has her own plans for taking advantage of the Dude’s obliviousness. The extremely eclectic supporting cast includes such notables as Ben Gazzara as a well-to-do producer of cheesy porno movies; John Turturro as a flashy bowler with a checkered past as a sex offender; Jon Polito as a shamus who optimistically assumes that The Dude must be smarter than he looks; and, during one of the film’s clever but overly extended fantasy sequences, Jerry Haleva as Saddam Hussein.

In the world according to the Coen brothers, the Iraqi leader doesn't appear at all incongruous as he stands behind a counter and rents bowling shoes to his customers. Sam Elliott also drops by from time to time as The Stranger, a drawling cowpoke who serves as narrator, adviser and overall master of ceremonies. He, too, seems right at home.

BTW: The Big Lebowski inspired such a humongous cult that somebody made a movie about that cult. Here is my Variety review of the 2009 documentary The Achievers: The Story of The Lebowski Fans.

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