Friday, November 26, 2010

The Big Lebowski (1998)

USA/UK, 117 minutes
Directors/writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Photography: Roger Deakins
Editors: Tricia Cooke, Roderick Jaynes, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Elliot, Tara Reid, Flea, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, John Turturro, David Thewlis, Ben Gazzara, Aimee Mann

I remember enjoying this star-studded fantasy barrel of laughs quite a bit when it came out, the insanely complicated story of the Dude (played by Jeff Bridges) and his inadvertent falling in with various packs of no-goodniks in and around Los Angeles who intend him evil in any number of ways. But I missed the shift to cult status, which I see started in the early 2000s on the usual midnight movie circuit, a few years after the release, and has now expanded to include a church, the Church of the Latter-Day Dude, or "Dudeism," a factor clearly signifying that something has arrived as a cult. In terms of both production and entertainment value, I don't think there are many such movies that can compare. The cast is stellar, in small parts and large. John Turturro, for example, probably gets something on the order of 10 minutes of screen time as a registered sex offender and deranged competitive bowler, but he's hilarious and unforgettable, pulling on his crotch as he makes threats and tonguing his bowling ball preparatory to hurling it down the lane. John Goodman has a much larger role as an aggrieved Vietnam veteran and it's arguably his best performance ever. Bridges, the star, is pitch-perfect as the slatternly hipster doofus—a bowler, a pot smoker, a white Russian swilling appreciator of indoor decorative arts, who roams the world perpetually clad in disgusting bathrobe and flip-flops. And Jimmie Dale Gilmore Sam Elliot almost steals the show as the cowboy narrator who gets all meta and shows up in bowling alley bars to discuss points of narrative with the Dude. Just another inexplicable cowboy from Hollywood. A screwball comedy minus the romance, this is the kind of movie where everybody knows the meaning of the word "nihilist" and casually bandies it about all the time, in regard to themselves and others. Not all the jokes work—the "Branded" scriptwriter found encased in an iron lung, for example—but they keep coming. It's pure comedy too. There are no changes to tones more appropriate to horror or noir or whatever, though they could have done it. They (meaning the Coen brothers, who wrote and directed) could have even made it kind of stressful, on the order of an "I Love Lucy" episode ("d'oh no, don't do THAT, Dude!") but they didn't. They stuck with comedy, underlined by the bizarrely effective fantasy sequences, such as the film within the film, "Gutterballs," which are funny and crazy weird on the order of Busby Berkeley dance routines, but with Creedence and bowling motifs and the hairy Dude in his bathrobe. If it starts to seem like a matter of diminishing returns to keep track of all the narrative threads, don't worry. It probably hangs together. Check on that with a Dudeist.


  1. Just a quick correction - that's Sam Elliot playing the narrator. Jimmie Dale Gilmore is Smoky, the bowler Walter threatens with a gun.

  2. Yikes -- thanks for the catch!