03 April, 2010

The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Dude abides

Nominated for Screen International Award for a Non-European Film (Joel Coen), European Film Awards 1998

What better film is there to mark the return of James Drew (JD) and Colin Moors (CM) to side-by-side reviewing, than Joel and Ethan Coen’s sublime mixture of Chandler and ten-pin bowling, The Big Lebowski (1998)? Of all the films we’ve ever discussed, this takes the prize for being the most eminently quotable and, perhaps, the funniest. To all our faithful readers, with thanks – we only hope it’s a strike.

“Not on the rug, man!”
“That rug really tied the room together.”

JD: A little background, to begin – my reviewing partner and I also double up as long-time members and some-time captains of a Brussels-based bowling team, The Vikingettes (don’t ask) and so we can announce with authority that ten-pin bowling is perfectly chosen by writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen as the game of choice (and his tipple of choice is a White Russian) for their film’s central character, Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), better known to his friends Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Theodore Donald ‘Donny’ Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi) as ‘The Dude’. “Now, ‘Dude’ – ” (as the film’s narrator, The Stranger (Sam Elliott) intones at the beginning of proceedings), “that’s a name no-one would self apply where I come from, but then again, there was a whole lot about The Dude that didn’t make much sense to me.” According to the Coens, Dude (based on a real-life acquaintance of the pair) is “a man in whom casualness runs deep” and, truly, he’s all that. Little, apart from perhaps his Vietnam-obsessed buddy Walter (seriously, Goodman is just so good in this role) fazes the man, but when two thugs come calling at his house, looking for his wife, Bunny (Tara Reid) who owes money all over town (“My wife? Bunny? Do you see a wedding ring, man? Does this place look like I’m fucking married? The toilet seat is up, man!”) and then pee on his rug, Dude realizes that he has been the victim of mistaken identity, and sets out to ask LA’s ‘other’ Jeffrey Lebowski – The Big Lebowski (David Huddleston) for recompense. A pompous, crippled millionaire to whom Bunny is a mere ‘trophy wife’, Lebowski is initially more than rude towards Dude, but seems to change his attitude when Bunny is allegedley kidnapped. Thinking that perhaps the thugs who ’soiled’ Dude’s rug may also be the kidnappers, Lebowski and his servant Brad (another simply brilliant turn, in a film that’s littered with ‘em, from Philip Seymour Hoffman) provide Dude with the $1 million ransom in a sealed case, a beeper so he can be reached at any time, and instructions to act as bag man. “Her life is in your hands, Dude.” Unfortunately, Dude decides to involve Walter…oh, fuck.

“That’s a great plan, Walter. That’s fuckin’ ingenious, if I understand it correctly. It’s a Swiss fuckin’ watch.”
CM: Involving Walter in anything more complex than grocery shopping is simply asking for trouble. Sure enough, what should be a simple case of dropping the money off in return for Bunny’s freedom quickly becomes a fiasco of epic proportion. “Fuck that! I love you, Walter, but sooner or later you’re gonna have to face the fact that you’re a goddamn moron!” This really is the essence of the Walter/Dude relationship. Walter is well-meaning, but clinically insane. The Dude likes him despite his obvious shortcomings but occasionally, Walter’s schemes and daydreams push the wrong buttons and Dude momentarily loses his legendary cool. On this particular occasion, he decides that the plan in which they throw the money in a bag out of a moving car could be improved tremendously by scrapping it entirely and grabbing one of the kidnappers and locating Bunny by “beating it out of him”. The Dude is less than enamoured of this plan.

“What’s a pederast, Walter?”
“Shut the fuck up, Donny.”

JD: ‘Donny’, as portrayed by Steve Buscemi, is the hilarious constant recipient of the shitty end of the stick in the narrative – the second line of dialogue above is by and large Walter’s only interaction with his so-called friend, with its style of delivery ranging from apathy to complete rage, depending on Walter’s mood. And the ‘pederast’ in question? Ah, that would be one Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), a bowler of some clout whose sexual tastes run, apparently, to the ‘exotic’. “Nobody fucks with the Jesus!” Singularly unimpressed with Walter’s on-lane antics (he had previously pulled a gun and threatened an opponent with “a world of pain” if the hapless (and pacifist) bowler doesn’t mark a frame as a zero after he allegedly stepped over the line while bowling, and has rearranged a league game because he doesn’t roll on the Sabbath), he is however a man of some grace when it comes to rolling, as a simply hysterical ‘ball kissing’ set-piece proves. In fact, the film’s joy lies in its set-pieces, with actors of the calibre of Julianne Moore as Maud Lebowski, the Big Lebowski’s avant-garde artist daughter, only too happy to be along for the ride. “Vagina.”

[On video] “You must be here to fix the cable.”
“Lord. You can imagine where it goes from here.”
“He fixes the cable?”
“Don’t be fatuous, Jeffrey.”

CM: Maud shows a video and explains to Dude about Bunny’s ‘career’ as a porn star. She also intimates that she thinks there is more to this kidnapping than first meets the eye – “This compulsive fornicator is taking my father for the proverbial ride.” The Dude, being as he is, isn’t as concerned about the whereabouts or well-being of Bunny as he is for his rug. The relationship between Dude and Maude is one based purely on mutual benefit. Naturally, some benefits may outweigh certain others, but everyone leaves satisfied in the end. Kind of. This relationship is but one of many in the movie, but one of the more intriguing – is she, or is she not his “special lady”? She’s certainly too haughty to call Dude by his “preferred nomenclature”, always referring to him as Jeffrey.

“Your phone’s ringing, Dude!”
“Thank you, Donny.”

JD: And it is in exchanges such as this that the film’s delight is also manifest – Dude is keeping a lid on it, but his frustration is reaching boiling point. As he complains at one point: “I could have been sitting here with just pee stains on my rug!” – instead, he’s been drawn into a labyrinthine plot of truly Raymond Chandleresque (The Big Sleep) proportions but, at least unlike Chandler’s infamously contrived masterpiece, which the film is also a homage to, The Big Lebowski has an ending that is both appropriate and satisfying. We are, of course, giving nothing away.

“Love me.”
“That’s my robe!”

CM: Yes, the hero gets the girl and rides off into the sunset, Donny and Walter marry their childhood sweethearts, and Bunny turns up safe and sound. OK, not really. This is a Coen brothers film, after all. As my esteemed partner in rhyme alluded to above, things work themselves out to a nicely rounded finish but will probably not be entirely what you may expect or hope for. As a piece of art, it’s one of the more unusual, especially for the F-word count. ‘Fuck’ and its variations and derivatives is used 292 times in total, clocking in at – if my Windows calculator serves – 2.49 utterances per minute. If you really haven’t the time to watch the whole movie, try just watching the swearing here on YouTube.

So, why watch it? It’s got nihilists, bowling, an allegedly depraved Mexican, a poor man’s version of electro band Kraftwerk, excessive swearing, excessive use of the word ‘Dude’ and a rug that really tied the room together. What’s not to like?

Awards: Click here for details.

117 mins.

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