The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Coen Brothers | 1hr 57min

The eccentric worlds of Coen Brothers films aren’t often built by epic establishing shots or detailed production design, though they do revel in these on occasion. Their settings usually come together through the uniquely American idiosyncrasies of their characters, the dark humour of their screenplays, and, especially as we see here in The Big Lebowski, their thorough understanding of how genre conventions can be flipped, bent, twisted, and discarded with altogether. Initially considered a disappointment hot off the success of Fargo, The Big Lebowski was subject to complaints of jumbled, convoluted plotting which, if anything, puts it in good company with the pulpy detective novels and films that it takes so much inspiration from. 
In the rich lineage of directors who bring to life their own artistic takes on Los Angeles-based neo-noirs, the Coens look favourable next to those such as Robert Altman and Roman Polanski who trod similar ground before them. Their vision of the sunny Californian city is one of contradictions, where slackers co-exist with businessmen, war veterans, artists, and young families, all of whom have some role to play in the crime and corruption which escalate from the smallest, most ridiculous misunderstandings.

Career best performances from both Jeff Bridges and John Goodman – plus we get one of the best movie characters of the 1990s in The Dude.

Jeffrey Lebowski, more colloquially known as The Dude, isn’t immune to this. Though his breezy attitude keeps him cool in extreme situations, it also makes him an easy target for manipulation by those pulling the strings. Bunny, the missing wife of a wealthy philanthropist also named Jeffrey Lebowski, seems to have been kidnapped by a gang of German nihilists, and with the promise that he might be able to return to his peaceful life of bowling if he sorts all this out, the Dude searches for answers, trying desperately to keep up with the pointless, conflicting demands thrust upon him. Virtually everyone, from porn industry kingpin Jackie Treehorn to postmodern artist Maude, has some stakes in the matter of Bunny’s disappearance – but really, no one here knows what they are doing. It is simply much easier for them to pin their confusion and failures on the guy who openly wears his bewilderment on his sleeve. 
The Dude himself is a masterstroke of creative characterisation from the Coens. Where one might expect to find an intelligent, relentless, hardboiled detective dressed in a sharp suit and fedora, we instead find the opposite – a bearded man dressed in sandals, baggy shorts, and a robe, stuck in the hippie movement that has long since grown out of fashion. Jeff Bridges delivers his lines with all the nonchalance and hilariously lax timing of a man who sees the wild, intense world running around him, and cares very little for it. After a violent threat from a bowling opponent, his only response is a short pause and a quiet “Jesus…”, a comically far cry from whatever sharp witticism private investigator Philip Marlowe might have retorted with. 

Sloppy, lazy, comfortable. An instantly recognisable look.

As a veteran stuck in his glory days of the Vietnam War, John Goodman’s Walter also makes for an explosive, comedic counterpoint to the Dude’s untroubled attitude. Though they have opposing approaches to almost every complication they come up against, both recognise each other as misfits in a culture that has moved on without them. With nothing else out there for either one, their responses to tough, unresolvable situations end in agreement on one course of action.   

“Fuck it Dude, let’s go bowling.” 

This entire dream sequence may be the zenith of the film’s artistic achievement. Funny, surreal, and visually inventive.

The Coen Brothers’ films aren’t often recognised for their sumptuous imagery, and yet they take The Big Lebowski a step further than its noir predecessors in literalising the Hollywood dream through surreal, wandering interludes. One Busby Berkeley dream sequence rendered in black, white, red, and gold is a magnificent reflection of the Dude’s subconscious working its way through the mystery at hand, his bizarre relationship with Maude, and of course, bowling. Outside these hallucinations, slow-motion shots of objects, lights, and people floating across pitch black backgrounds are threaded through the Dude’s reluctant investigation, continuing to lift the plot out of reality and into a weightless realm – a visual representation of his own light passage through otherwise dark situations. In a world where these deceitful, seedy environments are as inescapable as they are erratic, the Dude’s carefree lifestyle is ultimately the only constant which we can depend upon.

A surreal motif of objects and people floating through black spaces.

The Big Lebowski is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video, and available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.


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