Tuesday 22 October 2013

Movie Review: The Big Lebowski (1998)

A piece of classic modern nonsense, The Big Lebowski thrives on an mood of utter pacifist irreverence. The Coen brothers Ethan and Joel create a Chandleresque mystery in modern Los Angeles, through the cracked mirror of a skewed society where the peculiar is normal.

Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is unemployed, penniless, and extremely mellow in his attitude to life. In contrast, his best friend Walter (John Goodman) is a strung out Vietnam veteran still fighting the war - any war. They spend most of their time bowling with mutual friend Donny (Steve Buscemi). Two thugs break into The Dude's apartment, demanding money owed by Lebowski's wife. Except that The Dude has no wife. Realizing that they have the wrong Jeff Lebowski, the thugs depart, but not before urinating on The Dude's carpet.

Spurred on by Walter, The Dude visits the mansion of the very rich other Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston), seeking a new carpet. Before long, the rich Lebowski and his personal assistant Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman) hire The Dude to help secure the release of trophy wife Mrs. Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), who has been kidnapped and is being held for a $1 million ransom. Walter ensures that the planned exchange is a total botch, landing The Dude in a lot of trouble, especially when Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), the rich Lebowski's estranged daughter and an eccentric artist, gets involved, along with pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara).

The Dude is one of the most indelible slackers created for the movies. Larger than life and utterly comfortable with doing nothing, he never lifts a finger in anger, and actually hardly ever gets angry. As his life gets ever more insane, he maintains an inner calmness and just gets on with extricating himself from each successive mess. Perpetually dressed in a jumble of a house robe, old shorts and ratty t-shirt, his face haggard yet still optimistic, The Dude is a one of a kind. Jeff Bridges embodies the role and delivers a memorable performance, dominating with tranquillity.

The Big Lebowski plot is maybe not as original as the main character, but it's close. The Coens draw inspiration from Raymond Chandler's overcomplicated detective mysteries as well as real-life Los Angeles characters to create a convoluted narrative that always threaten to break out of control, but is just held in check. Some distractions, such as the detective in the Volkswagen, do seem like needless clutter, but overall there are a lot more hits than misses. The juxtaposition of 1940s classic elements, like the old rich man in the mansion, his oily assistant, the vixen, the potentially more dangerous sister, and the pornography sub-plot are all easily modernized. Seen through the eyes of The Dude, who just wants a clean rug to bring together his room, they become often priceless fodder for humour.

Counterbalancing The Dude is Walter, a man strung out and unwilling to view life as anything other than a battlefield. In one his more prominent big screen roles John Goodman matches Bridges' coolness with delightfully unhealthy intensity and a misplaced sense of self-confidence. Walter's ideas rarely help the situation, but he is never short on ideas, which makes him a valuable friend to the passive Dude.

The Dude and Walter spend all their spare time (which is all their time) at the bowling centre, where the submissive Donny receives a constant stream of disrespect from Walter. Against the constant crash of balls striking pins, life's little problems are blown into full fledged crises, as The Dude and Walter manage to make every bad situation worse by talking it through.

The other characters are more linear but play their role in adding to the prevailing quirkiness. The rich Jeffrey Lebowski is the spiritual descendant of General Sternwood from The Big Sleep, and his wife Bunny is not far from Carmen, Sternwood's wild daughter. Julianne Moore is Maude Lebowski, the (relatively) more rational family member, echoing Carmen's sister Vivian. Only Maude has the iciness to compete with The Dude's nonchalance, and she is the only one to get what she wants out of him.

The main cast members are surrounded by hoods, nihilists, pornographers, and really strange bowlers. John Turturro as Jesus Quintana goes way over the top as The Dude's next opponent, but even he seems to fittingly belong in a Los Angeles brimming with wackos.

Filled with attitude and a unique brand of laid back energy, The Big Lebowski throws a perfect game.

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