The Big Lebowski
Reviewed in March 1998
Director: Joel Coen. Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, David Huddleston, Steve Buscemi,
Peter Stormare, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reid, Ben Gazzara, John Turturro. Screenplay: Joel and Ethan
Never accuse the Coen brothers of not being clever. In crafting their first post-Fargo curio, director Joel and producer Ethan, rather than risk falling short
of the quality standards they so recently set for themselves, have made a film that defies any
existing, coherent standard of quality. Or, for that matter, any existing standard of anything
besides sheer, giddy energy.
The Big Lebowski is so unconcerned with narrative momentum, so scornful of formal aesthetics, so
defiantly weird, that critiquing it is nearly impossible and thus, one feels, a curmudgeonly and
nit-picky exercise. All the same, if simply buoyancy and Krazy comedy are all Lebowski promises,
it must be said that the film does not always attain even those goals.
The action of the filmnote my willful rejection of the word "plot"revolves, as does much of the Coen
brothers' oeuvre, around some titanically wrong-headed "malfeasance" (that's Marge-speak). This time,
Someone Somewhere wants some money that they are owed by Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) and, as would only
happen in a Coen brothers film, demand said money by ransacking Jeff's house and urinating on his carpet.
Problem is, they've got the wrong Jeff Lebowski. The man they wanted is a millionaire in a wheel-chair
whose porn-star trophy wife has stirred up all the trouble; Bridges' character, who prefers to be known as
"The Dude," is a pot-smoking, league-bowling, flip-flop-wearing shuffler who, we are told in narration, is
a worthy claimant to tht title of Laziest Man in Los Angeles.
The criminals realize their mistake, but because the movie can't end at the ten-minute mark, what follows
is another zig-zaggy, hopelessly bizarre series of events by which a gallery of weirdos,
lowlifes, and eccentrics compete and connive to the best of their impaired abilities to secure a
briefcase full of that old stand-by, the "unmarked bills." Among this carnival of goons and geeks are
John Goodman as a short-fused 'Nam vet who takes his bowling as seriously as he did the War; Julianne
Moore as a modish performance artist and the very soul of soulless affectation; and John Turturro in
another gonzoid character role as Jesus, a sort of witch-doctor/bowler/terrorist in a purple lycra suit
that John Turturro should never, ever have worn.
If all of this sounds a little self-consciously strange...well, it is. The Big Lebowski never
pretends to be anything except a big, sprawling mess, and it would be easy to let the film totally off the
hook since it so clearly broadcasts its lack of ambitions. But really, how much fun is it to watch a mess,
even one that calls itself a mess, and particularly when everyone involved has done more ambitious,
satisfying, anddammit!funnier work in the not-too-distant past?
As the Dude, the non-hero squatting at the non-center of this almost non-movieand remember, that
in itself is not necessarily a criticismJeff Bridges occasionally achieves the delightfully dazed,
kicked-back, stoned nirvana state that the character clearly demands. Bridges is at his best here in
his moments of addled confusion, as in a hilarious confrontation with the richer (i.e., "The Big") Jeff
Lebowski, played at punchy Full Rant by David Huddleston (sort of a pissed-off Lionel Barrymore from
It's a Wonderful Life), or an even more uproarious scene in which a gaggle of hapless thugs try to
pump the Dude for information by dropping a live, shrieking marmot into his bathwater. In these scenes,
Bridges expertly renders the Dude's complete bewilderment and vague annoyancethough rarely more than
that, since the Dude is too mellow (or stoned) to get truly angry or have any emotion at all that
isn't, well, "vague".
The sad truth, though, is that Bridges is a famously intelligent actor, one with the rare gift of
vitalizing on-screen the interior lives of his complicated, ruminative characters (think The Fabulous
Baker Boys or The Fisher King). I'm not in the Cult of Jeff to which many critics belongwas it
Andrew Sarris who called him "the best actor alive"?but for every scene in which Bridges successfully
achieves the Dude's complete mental vapidity, there are more than a few where his forcefully mental
presence is badly out of synch with the material. Bridges at times seems as uncomfortable playing a
braindead layabout as
he did playing Ralph Bellamy in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Someday someone will explain to me why
smart directors insist on casting this smart, smart actor as a dum-dum.
Among the supporting cast, Julianne Moore, who is just about the best thing the movie industry has going
at the moment, is a constant hoot as Maude, the Big Lebowski's bitter, pretentious artiste-fille.
With Mia Wallace's haircut and a stainless-steel "Continental" accent, she's the only character whose
insistent weirdness actually combines into a full comic persona. Her more controlled, specific performance
ironically gets her more pure belly-laughs than Goodman earns for playinguninspiredlya volcano.
What any viewer, and particularly any reviewer of The Big Lebowski has to acknowledge, I
think, is that much in the manner of the Naked Gun or Hot Shots films, what we have here is
a scattershot assortment of comic set-pieces: a stockpiling of gags so endless that eventually, by law of
averages, everyone will find something worth a laugh. For what it is, the strategy works,
and I chuckled through a fair amount of The Big Lebowski. But all-out slapstick flatters the Coens
much less than their own perverse, disciplined, wonderfully off-center sense of humor. A
Naked Gun movie by these guys was only slightly higher on my Movie Wishlist than a Simpson &
Bruckheimer Tale of Two Cities or a Merchant-Ivory Beverly Hills Cop. This broad farce
about mistaken identities would have worked much better if the filmmakers hadn't mistaken their own. B