Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Big Lebowski


THE BIG LEBOWSKI            A-                   
USA  Great Britain  (117 mi)  1998  d:  Joel Coen

 This isn't 'Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.    —Walter Sobchak (John Goodman)

A zany, constantly inventive, laid back charmer that features witty dialogue, madcap characters, drugs, sex, and plenty of profanity, not to mention terrific use of music that intrudes almost like a Greek chorus as the voice of one’s conscience.  Perhaps the greatest tribute to bowling ever committed to celluloid, this is a film about a perfectly relaxed and ordinary stoner guy, Jeff Bridges known as “The Dude,” who likes to hang out with his friends, drink white Russians and bowl at nights.  However, trouble ensues, interrupting his mellow slacker’s life, when the Dude (aka Jeff Lebowski) gets mistaken for the “big” Lebowski, a high society Lionel Barrymore type who claims to have millions, who apparently owes some gangsters a shitload of money and they’ve come for a collection, showing they mean business by peeing on his rug before they realize it’s a case of mistaken identity.  But clearly irritated by that rug incident, the Dude decides to hit the real Lebowski up for a little replacement rug money, but instead he gets wrapped up in the middle of a kidnapping-gone-wrong caper, as Lebowski’s young porn starlet girlfriend turns up missing.  Wacko Vietnam vet John Goodman plays his best friend Walter, a big man who has an opinion on just about everything, where at least in his view, everything in life is related to Vietnam, usually setting off his hair-trigger temper leading to a stark raving mad rant, but then he tones it back down to fine and mellow.  John Buscemi plays Donny, always late in entering a conversation, where Walter inevitably barks at him:  “Shut the fuck up, Donny.” 

The film is basically a non-stop, run-on conversation between Walter and The Dude, as despite being best friends, they also continually get on each other’s nerves.  There’s actually a cowboy tumbleweed introduction by an offscreen character known as The Stranger (Sam Elliott), who places the setting in Los Angeles and proceeds to deconstruct the whole Raymond Chandler romantic view of the City of Lights, as this dark and constantly frustrating view of the city is meant to be discouraging, where things are never what they seem.  However, from the luminous interior glow of the bowling alleys, you’d think the city cherished bowling as much as they do movie emporiums.  While not a private eye movie, the Dude is thrust into the middle of one volatile situation after another with a myriad of goofball characters that requires a certain amount of self-reflection to continually find his way out of dead ends.  From high flying feminist artist Julianne Moore, real daughter of the “big” Lebowski, who triggers nudist expression, procreation, along with key plot revelations, or John Turturro who has an all-too brief appearance as a trash talking bowler named Jesus Quintana dressed in color coordinated lavender, who goes through sexual gyrations and a good luck kiss as he delivers the ball, to the three Nihilists who are easily the mosty bizarrely dysfunctional kidnapping team, as they continue to demand ransom money even after they’ve lost the kidnapped girl, while suave and debonair Ben Gazzara, porn producer supreme, relies on old-school methods and traditional heavies to get his point across. 

With surrealistic Busby Berkeley bowling dream images that occasionally flood the screen to the music of Kenny Rodgers and the First Edition singing “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” Big Lebowski Dream Part - YouTube (3:18), including a bowling ball-cam that only sees out of the rotating holes as it rolls down the lane, the pace of the film is pure anarchy where anything goes, where the Dude just goes with the flow, ocasionally arguing with Walter over each other’s strange interpretations, but each new set of circumstances is central to the film having the feel of a mysterious road movie, where the Dude’s car gets a workout following one ridiculous journey after another.  Like an apparition, The Stranger shows up in the middle of a bowling sequence, expanding on his narrative observations directly to the camera even as the Dude is embroiled in his next adventure, where he’s heard near the end proclaiming “The Dude abides.”  John Goodman, however, is the true revelation in this film, as he’s just a giant lug of a man who insists on being the Dude’s right hand protection, a guy who lays it all on the line out of true friendship wherever he goes, where he’s just as likely to fuck things up as save the day.  But what matters is that they’re a team, where the ultimate insult is to threaten quitting the bowling team.  To these guys, that’s heresy.  An exquisitely heartfelt live performance of Townes Van Zandt singing “Dead Flowers” Townes van zandt - Dead Flowers - YouTube (4:48) brings down the curtain to the final end credits.  This is the Coens delivering sheer lunacy.  

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