The Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998) – the Friday Classic review
The run-up is slovenly, the technique more scuffed-up than usual, but underestimate the Coens at your peril. They’ll still execute a perfect strike
In their early days, the Coen Brothers acquired a reputation for the precise, structural logic of their movies. The cross- and double-cross of Miller’s Crossing is the most obvious example of this, but it’s there in the clockwork precision of The Hudsucker Proxy and the taut efficiency of Blood Simple. Even Fargo, for all its non-sequiturs, unravels with inexorable logic.
The Big Lebowski is different: a far looser, shaggier affair, befitting a main character who is first introduced stealing milk from a supermarket while still in his threadbare leisure wear. Actually, of course, it’s an act: the film’s plotting is meticulous, and everything slots together with a satisfying click. Yet the Coens’ approach, viewing its extraordinary cast of characters as episodic interludes between the Dude’s bowling practices, makes the film seem spontaneous and organic.
The title, and aspects of the plot (the crippled millionaire with a wayward woman in his life) hark back to Raymond Chandler and The Big Sleep, and this is the Coens’ postmodern assault on Chandleresque rhythm, a world of grotesques all stuck in their corrupt palaces. Only the nature of the world has changed, with a very modern L.A. of pornography, ‘vaginal’ art, nihilistic technopop and Urban Achievers’ charities replacing the hoodlums of the past. It’s a rugless world where nothing is tied together: no community but an endless stream of anonymous limousines. The film this takes most of its cues from is Altman’s clever transposition of The Long Goodbye to the sun-kissed bankruptcy of the 70s, but they find one joke further by making the Marlowe character not a dishevelled knight of morality but just a bum.
Jeff Bridges’ astonishing performance, all grizzled charm and slow-on-the-uptake synapses, cuts through the bullshit of the various factions duking it out around him. All he wants to do is to bowl and, gloriously, that passion creates its own gang. This is the Coens’ ultimate gag at the expense of L.A., a world so fragmented that your best pals might be a Vietnam vet with undiagnosed PTSD and a pleasant but gormless yokel – the two of whom, incidentally, have such a passive-aggressive relationship it’s a wonder they’re friends at all. The thing is, there’s no pretence, no veiled motives: just warts-and-all honesty, and sometimes that is all you need. The biggest trauma here isn’t the loss of the rug but the endless threat to the Dude’s car, without which he really would be alone.
So there are three films here: the ‘crime’ story, the understated indie about bowling chums shooting the shit, and the glorious collisions between the two whenever John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak muscles in on the action. Varying between best buddy concern and outright madness – nowhere more so than in the hilarious scene where he shows a teenage boy what happens when a stranger fucks you in the ass – Sobchak is possibly the greatest character the Coens ever devised. It’s criminal that Goodman wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar.
Then again, until Philip Seymour Hoffman won for Capote, this film probably contained the best ensemble cast never to have a gold fella between them – despite the presence of Bridges, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, Ben Gazzara, and John Turturro. It’s a mark of the Coens’ sheer confidence and chutzpah that they can bring in an actor as good as David Thewlis for a one-scene cameo and ask nothing more of him than to sit around, cackling with glee.