Big Lebowski, The (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In a word, The Big Lebowski is a mess. But what a glorious, wonderfully-entertaining mess it is. This film, the Coen Brothers' follow-up to the critically-lauded Fargo, isn't likely to generate the same degree of universal praise. In fact, those expecting something along similar lines to the 1997 Oscar nominee may be disappointed. The Big Lebowski is an off-the-wall comedy that has more in common with Raising Arizona than with Fargo. Its single weakness, and what amounts to little more than a minor distraction, is that it doesn't have much of a plot, and what there is contains the kind of gaping holes that even the most obtuse viewer can identify.

Of course, the Coens have never done the same thing twice in a row, so it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that The Big Lebowski is so far afield from Fargo. Nevertheless, the brothers' inimitable style is very much in evidence; if anything, it may be more pronounced here. This is one weird motion picture, but I use that term in the kindest fashion, because all of the quirkiness adds up to a level of delightful humor that few films this side of a Monty Python enterprise can match. This is a comic amusement park ride – a wildly uneven movie that offers tremendous pleasure for the moment, even if it doesn't stand up well to post-screening analysis and scrutiny.

The Coens begin by introducing us to their latest protagonist, The Dude (Jeff Bridges), a down-and-out, unemployed drifter who is still mentally mired in the '60s. He spends his days moping around his apartment, doing nothing and puffing on joints. On rare occasions, he makes his way over to the bowling alley for a league game with his two best friends: Walter (John Goodman), a Polish Catholic Jew who still suffers from post-traumatic stress from his days in Vietnam, and Donny (Steve Buscemi), a meek moron. Most of the time, however, The Dude is content to stay at home, which is why he's known as "the laziest man in Los Angeles County." That is, until a group of inept crooks confuse him with The Big Lebowski (David Huddleston), one of the city's richest businessmen.

It seems that Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), The Big Lebowski's ornamental wife, owes a great deal of money to porn producer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara). Treehorn's men mistake The Dude (whose real name is also Lebowski) for their quarry – and it takes them a while to realize their error (they're not Rhodes scholars). Irritated that his carpet has been ruined by the intruders, The Dude arranges a meeting with The Big Lebowski to extract compensation. But things don't go exactly as planned. Soon, The Dude finds himself on Lebowski's payroll as the bag man handling the ransom for his employer's kidnapped wife. But the ever-pragmatic Walter thinks The Dude should keep the money. Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), The Big Lebowski's daughter, wants the money returned to her family. Meanwhile, some innocent thief steals The Dude's car, where the money is being stored. And, to top matters off, there's some question about whether Bunny is really in any danger.

Much of the humor comes as a result of the sheer ineptitude of The Dude. This guy isn't a bad choice for handling the ransom drop in a kidnapping, he's the worst choice. He's a complete loser, and his friends aren't any better. Walter is a gun-crazy lunatic who threatens to shoot a cheater at the bowling alley, and Donny has a vacuum for a brain. Ultimately, The Dude, Walter, and Donny are the kinds of guys who seem at home in a Coen Brothers film, but would be wildly out-of-place anywhere else (including in the real world). In addition to these three, there are a number of colorful supporting characters, including a hilariously over-the-top John Turturro as a bowler named Jesus.

When it comes to the bowling alley, the Coens order up more laughs in a few scenes than can be found in the whole of Kingpin (a "bowling comedy"). Stepping even deeper into their own surrealistic world of the bizarre, the brothers use this arena to stage a parody of Busby Berkley musicals. It's called Gutterballs and it features, among other things, a dance number with Julianne Moore in a strange, Viking-like costume, Saddam Hussein renting bowling shoes, and Jeff Bridges stuck inside a ball, looking out.

One of the things I appreciated the most about The Big Lebowski is its mockery of the voiceover narrative. Readers of my reviews know that this is one of my pet peeves, so it was great fun to watch a film in which this approach is openly satirized. The Big Lebowski is narrated by Sam Elliot, but, during his self-consciously long-winded opening monologue (in which he introduces The Dude), he suddenly loses his train of thought, and says as much to the audience. It's rare that any movie uses the narrator to comic effect rather than for unnecessary exposition.

Once again, the Coens have chosen their cast well. With long hair, a beard, sunglasses, and a vapid expression, Jeff Bridges is perfect as the perpetually-stoned Dude. Clean-cut and militant, John Goodman's profanity-spewing Walter is delightfully off his rocker. Steve Buscemi for once has a relatively low-key role. As Maude, Julianne Moore is given an opportunity to take a walk on the wild side. And David Huddleston plays Lebowski like Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life, wheelchair and all.

Problems with the plot notwithstanding, The Big Lebowski ranks as one of the most audacious comedies of recent years. The Coens keep the jokes coming, although some of them are so subtle they can easily be missed (for example, when The Dude writes a check for 69 cents). Profane, outrageous, and without inhibitions, The Big Lebowski further cements the Coens' reputation as independent film makers.

Big Lebowski, The (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 1998-03-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1