Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Sometimes there's a movie, and, I'm talking about the The Big Lebowski here, it's the movie for it's time and place. It fits right in there. No film has ever captured the voluntary apathy, the breadth of looser culture, present in the 1990's in quite the same way as The Big Lebowski. The film gets very mixed reviews, especially on a first viewing, but that's because it demands that you accept it for what it is. It's a movie that demands that you just let it be. Like The Dude, it simply abides. There is no grand message hidden in The Big Lebowski. There is nothing terribly important that the Coen brothers want to tell you. It's just a movie about a dude, The Dude to be exact, and a damn funny one at that.

I've already told you that what happens in The Big Lebowski is irrelevant, so I'm not going to give you a long synopsis of the plot. Simply, someone pisses on The Dude's rug and he will not let the aggression stand. From there, things get pretty silly. The Dude, Jeff Bridges, and his friends, played by Steven Buscemi and John Goodman, try to unravel the mess that overwhelms their lives and try to continue to advance in their bowling league's tournament. The supporting cast features a few more familiar faces, Julian Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman and a few other Coen regulars. Masterfully written and directed by the Coen brothers, the traditional humor in The Big Lebowski is bolstered by some really surreal film-making that makes the whole movie feel a little bit like an acid trip.

There are a handful of, what I'll call, dream sequences in The Big Lebowski, along with a general feeling of surrealism, that give the movie a tone that is very different from almost every other movie out there. All of it feels a little bit like a bad acid flashback. This tone, set by the style of the movie, is echoed superbly by the actors. Each one seems more like a characterture than a real person, until you start to realize that the joke here is on you. These people, outlandish as they are, represent some of the archetypes of that generation better than any serious drama could ever hope to portray them. More importantly than anything else, all of the actors buy into this vision. Bridges, Goodman and Buscemi keep the movie funny with their perfect comedic chemistry and their full-on commitment to their roles. They are just as lost as we are, despite their assertions otherwise, and it all works perfectly together. You can't wait for the next thing to go wrong because it just gets funnier each time. The movie just escalates, sometimes without provocation or explanation, and, if you let it take you in, it's a hysterical ride. If you don't take The Dude's attitude to heart, you might find yourself asking "why?" a lot.

I wouldn't describe The Big Lebowski as a great introduction to the Coen brothers. In a lot of ways, it can be a seriously alienating film for a first time viewer. The surrealistic nature of it all, the same nature that I just praised, can be really difficult to get behind when you see the movie. I still, on my fourth viewing of the movie, find myself a little bored by the dream sequences and a little hesitant to give the movie serious consideration as more than a simple exercise in odd-ball comedy. The lack of substantial plot or character development can also be a turn off for someone who is looking at the movie from a more traditional sense. Not everyone can celebrate a movie that is as completely aimless as The Big Lebowski. The Coen's triumph is that most people can come to appreciate the wackiness of it all, but it takes time. The movie gets substantially better and funnier with each, repeated, viewing. 

Once you throw aside the pretenses that come with watching a movie, there is almost nothing wrong with The Big Lebowski. That's the trap it catches you in; to enjoy the movie you can't over-analyze it, so it becomes extremely difficult to find faults in it. As an expression of the aimless, 1990's slacker lifestyle, The Big Lebowski is hard to beat.


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