Overview: A case of mixed identity pulls a slacker and his bowling buddies into a kidnap scheme; 1998; Rated R; 117 Minutes.
The Problem of Likability: I always imagined The Big Lebowski must be a problematic film for the aspiring film critic to approach. I’ll risk my qualifications to admit that while I can list over a dozen film techniques introduced or perfected in Citizen Kane, given the choice between Orson Wells’ seminal classic and the Coen’s befuddling cult classic, I’m choosing The Dude. Every time. I’ve seen and talked about The Big Lebowski more times than any other movie. What does it say about film criticism—indeed, about the role of a critic—when one of the “lesser,” lighter films of an albeit great directing duo carries this much more pleasure-in-viewing than critics’ go-to choice for “best movie ever?” How does one begin to address that? Let’s try, shall we?
Well, It Certainly Has Characters: This movie is perfectly cast, every performance exhibits exactness on a second-by-second basis. The Coen Brothers stand back where they need to, smartly noting the organic knack for timing these actors demonstrate even in the unlikeliest of dialogue speeds and awkward scenarios. Minor characters– from Tara Reid who (as Bunny Lebowski) enjoys her first and last moment of filmgoers’ adoration during an improvisational blowjob sales pitch (Man, the sky was the limit for Tara Reid for… that one brief dialogue exchange), to the dynamic presence of John Turturro’s Jesus, film’s most uproarious pederast. The Dude’s bowling buddies strike the same naturalistic but irrational balance of conversation for the entire film. Donnie and Walter are played by Steve Buscemi and John Goodman, respectively, and the careers of both may eventually be defined by these roles.
And then there’s “The Dude”: Quote any of his lines in a crowded room and you’ll find his fans. Jeff Bridges, one of the finest actors of any generation, has achieved such an iconic character that I now can’t watch any of his movies without just seeing The Dude in different iterations. Crazy Heart, or Dude Plays Some Songs. True Grit, Dude on a Horse. Tron, Dude Has a Bad Acid Trip While Roadie-ing for Metallica during the Speed of Sound Tour. His work on The Big Lebowski, while occupying different film space, is as impressively realized as Day Lewis’ Daniel Plainview or DeNiro’s Jake Lamotta.
A Tested Formula: The Coen’s enjoy genre-bending-and-distorting, imposing slight changes to classic recipes that render entirely new tastes. They play by-the-book but color recklessly outside its lines. If I were to trace a line around the narrative here, I’d notice that this plot unfolds as a classic detective story, wherein the sharp-witted sleuth is replaced by a detached, aimless stoner with no intellectual or moral connection to the crime. Now we’re starting to get the intentional brilliance…
Oh Yeah, and Comedy: Presented just after the grotesque reign of the watered down juvenility of the Farrelly brothers and just before the Will Ferrell giant baby era, The Big Lebowski feels like boasting, taunting, a movie assured of its own superior comedic sense of slapstick, timing, and absurdity. It isn’t a sense of high-mindedness doing the elevation here (I mean, it starts with a swirly and uses a variation of the word “fuck” 271 times). Rather, it’s a sense of patience and attention, purpose and effort.
Now, About This Likability Problem: You know that question I posed at the beginning of this review? Yeah, I’ll admit that was intentionally misleading. More standard mystery movies like to call that a “red herring.” You see, likability isn’t some freak arbitrary phenomenon where a film, its moment, actors, and audience all serendipitously align into an unexpected, unwarranted experience of pleasure. Likability is a puzzle perfectly mastered, one so tightly constructed that the lines between the pieces are unapparent. The Coen Brothers’ stoner sleuth movie is the perfect product of ornery but disciplined hands, so flawless we’re left too entertained to admire the craft, the effort, the all-time mastery in storytelling. This movie, by every possible measurement, is a winner. That’s right. The bums don’t always lose. You hear us, Lebowski? The bums don’t always lose…