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 Coen.

Photo © 1998 Polygram Filmed Entertainment/
Gramercy Pictures
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 film—note 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, and—dammit!—funnier work in the not-too-distant past?

As the Dude, the non-hero squatting at the non-center of this almost non-movie—and remember, that in itself is not necessarily a criticism—Jeff 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 annoyance—though 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 belong—was 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 playing—uninspiredly—a 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. Grade: B–

(in March 1998: C)

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