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Review: The Big Lebowski (1998)

THE BIG LEBOWSKI

Rating

Director
Joel Coen
Screenplay
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Length
117 min.
Starring
Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reid, John Turturro, David Thewlis, Sam Elliott, Ben Gazzara
MPAA Rating
R for pervasive strong language, drug content, sexuality and brief violence.

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Review
Somewhere between Raising Arizona and A Serious Man, there's a Coens Bros. comedy that's more enjoyable than the former and less enjoyable than the latter. The Big Lebowski is an at-times entertaining and at-times frustrating film from the directorial team of whose work I fall on the less-impressed side.

A film that plays more like a Quentin Tarantino film than a Coens film, The Big Lebowski stars Jeff Bridges as a man known simply as "The Dude". A pot-smoking, lazy bowler, Dude's last name of Lebowski leads to a mistaken identity. The film opens as two goons invade Dude's house looking to beat the money that his wife owes them out of him. He assures them that he is not the man they are looking for, but not before one of them urinates on his living room rug. Frustrated and angered by the altercation, Dude confides his problems to his bowling partners Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi) who urge him (Walter does while telling Donny to shut up) to confront the actual Big Lebowski (David Huddleston) he was mistaken for in an effort to get his rug replaced.

Doing so pulls The Dude into a dangerous four-front conflict between Big Lebowski, his trophy wife's purported kidnappers, her porn director's goons and Lebowski's daughter's (Julianne Moore) feminine wiles. The film is narrated by Sam Elliott who treats the film as a type of cautionary prairie saga about the benefits and dangers of laziness.

I may not love the Coens, but one aspect of their films is always praiseworthy: the performances. Bridges had been on a downward slide at the box office for several years, finding a handful of solid roles along the way, but it was Lebowski that pushed Bridges from solid thespian to cultural icon. His film selection didn't improve much in the years after, but newer audiences recognized him based on this role. He made his way to his first Oscar nomination in 16 years with The Contender back in 2000 and then, in 2009, his celebrity and talent hit its peak simultaneously just as he appeared as a drunken country singer in Crazy Heart, which lead him to another Oscar nomination and his first Oscar. Bridges had always been a respected actor, but without The Big Lebowski and his effective portrayal in it, I don't think the stars would have aligned for him and he may still have been Oscar-less.

Buscemi is at his most subdued as the frequently-shushed Donny whose fate makes for one of the film's better, more emotional moments. While it's not his best performance, you're reminded that he's more than just the bat shit crazy, bug-eyed creep on display in so many other films. The one actor that should have gotten a career resuscitation from this film but didn't was John Goodman. Goodman's performance, although horrendously over-the-top is really quite entertaining. It's easy to get angry at everything he says. His mouth starts more trouble than any of his physical actions, but you can't help but feel like you're watching an actor at the top of his game. He restrains himself just enough to keep from being too outlandish.

Most of the rest of the cast is solid, but not spectacular. It's nice to see Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a more subdued role than his 2000's output. And Julianne Moore is an absolute hoot as Big Lebowski's daughter Maude. Her British accent makes the role memorable, but she never lets you forget she's there from the first frame she appears to the very last mention of her name.

Where the Coens go right is by hiring a raft of gifted actors and then giving them characters they can bite into with fervor. You can't actually relate to these characters, but you can be entertained by them and that's how the Coens have managed to succeed when other directors fail. You don't make a name for yourself without a style and these characters are typical Coens. You care somewhat what happens to them, but if they suddenly ended up dead you wouldn't be at all surprised and remorse would be fleeting.

And, in typical Coens fashion, the film's story is a bit confusing at times and lacks a capable resolution. At the end of The Big Lebowski, everything is suddenly all right. Things have gotten somewhat back to normal despite all the tragedy and life goes on. Many of the story's varied threads are left dangling while others seem a little too cleanly resolved. Getting to the end is part of the fun, but when you get there, you wonder why you even made the journey. It's one of the reasons I get so frustrated with the Coens. Their finales feel a bit smug. It's almost like they are taunting the audience, wanting them to question some bigger meaning without really telling them what's going on. It's like asking a child to decide between chocolate and vanilla, but only showing him the strawberry cone.

The Big Lebowski is entertaining enough. The characters are frequently fun and the performances strong, but the film falls apart as it comes to a close. I'm not a fan of loose ends, especially ones whose ends are too short to tie together. Making a movie isn't just about entertaining the audience, nor engaging their intellect. Hell, you don't even have to have a neatly-wrapped conclusion to tell a good story, but it is nice to sit down to a movie, get to the end and feel like there was a reason you watched the movie in the first place.
Review Written
April 24, 2011

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  1. I am unlikely to improve my opinion of it. The reason it bugs me is because of what the Coens do with it. And as I am not a fan of the Coens, I can’t imagine myself ever picking this up again. Far too many better movies out there waiting for me.

  2. Excellent review, Wesley. I couldn’t tell you how I felt the first time watching The Big Lebowski. I think I remember loving Bridges and Goodman and thinking it had some decent laughs. I was onyl 17 or 18 at the time. But I have seen the movie well over 100 times now and it never fails to make me laugh hysterically, almost to the point where I can’t breathe. I know countless people who were either unimpressed or downright hated The Big Lebowski on their maiden viewing, but have since come to embrace it as a favorite. My advice to you, watch it again in a year or two and you may be pleasantly surprised at all the details you may have missed the first time around. It’s the only movie I can attest to having felt completely different the second time around.


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