The Big Lebowski (1998)

D: Joel Coen
S: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore

Following their moment of respectible glory with Fargo, which won them critical acclaim from those not endeared to their more usual style, Joel and Ethan Coen have returned to the goony world of generic irreverence and ambiguous symbols which had previously won them the respect and admiration of the lunatic fringe and of film buffs all over. The Coen Brothers' world is frequently postmodern but never cowardly, baroque but rarely pretentious (Miller's Crossing excepted), demented but never out of touch with basic realities, and though their characters live in a phantasmagoria of internal battles made external through outrageous exaggeration, their films have never been less than entertaining.

But of course there are those for whom these people hold no appeal, and seeing The Big Lebowski will do little to convince them otherwise. Many of those who admired Fargo will find themselves frantically backpedalling and trying to point out the incongruities between the style of the former film and this one. But, sadly for them, deep down it's not that different. Just as Fargo came as little surprise to devotees, The Big Lebowski can be absorbed with calm satisfaction that the Coens remain two of the American cinema's great entertainers and whose take on cinema and on reality remains consistent.

The plot concerns a case of mistaken identity which leads Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), otherwise known as "The Dude", into a kidnapping plot which becomes more convoluted with every new character who pops out of the crazed world of paranoid, Gulf War America. Why the film is set in the early nineties is anyone's guess, and though one could read into it all kinds of theories about the embodiment of the nation's hopes and fears and insecurities and such, you would be playing the Coen Brothers' game and indulging in speculation where none is really warranted. They revel in images, symbols and associations which may or may not mean anything, and this film, like their others, is replete with fragmentary glimpses of the subconscious of postmodern America. This time it is seen through the eyes of a post-hippy drop out whose life consists of drifting happily from his modest home to the bowling alley where he hangs out with Vietnam vet John Goodman and perennial hanger-on Steve Buscemi (who never hears the beginning of a conversation and spends his time delivering lateral non sequiturs). Adding to the mischief, you never actually see The Dude bowl, even though bowling seems to be the central and most active component of his life.

Worrying about plot and character in terms of motivation and logic will get you nowhere, even though there is a basic story here and the characters are well defined if cartoonish types. The film is about the imponderables of any artistic record, a surrealist poke in the eye at meaning last seen at this level in The Hudsucker Proxy. Like the former film, this one has a budget to die for, which allows the Coens' to embark on all manner of elaborate visual projects, from a Busby Berkeley musical number to a dramatic parody of avant garde art, and framed by a narration by Sam Elliott, the film relishes in generic misbehaviour, never sitting still for a moment to explain what any of it is supposed to be and into what box it may be put. The unnatural world they create is the perfect environment for their wonderful, vivid characters, and The Dude is a marvellous creation, drifting determinedly devoted to leisure through a world in which he is given various moral missions to which he responds with a mixture of borrowed figures of speech (every time he has a conversation with someone, his next conversation has elements of the previous one in it) which ultimately cover up the fact that all he wants is a rug which ties his room together (don't ask).

This is maddening fun, and that's the way it's meant to be. It's a visual and aural assault on the sensibilities of the postmodern film viewer, and while not at all denying that art has meaning and value, it does its best to ensure they have a good time while they try to figure it all out. The performances are terrific, from Bridges' spaced out weirdo (based, allegedly, on a real life friend of the Coens), to Philip Seymour Hoffman as a live action Waylon Smithers, the ultimate sycophant to David Huddleston's contemptible millionaire (who shares the name Jeff Lebowski, which leads to all the trouble in the first place). Other Coen regulars have small, funny roles, including Peter Stormare and John Turturro, with Ben Gazarra making a lovely cameo as a Hugh Heffner type porn king and David Thewlis as a giggling avant-gardeist.

Rich, witty, inventive and very entertaining, this is not so much a film as one of The Dude's acid flashbacks (which he claims are his only form of entertainment aside from bowling), pitched to tantalise and confound anyone who fails to share their central character's world view. The Big Lebowski is entertainment if you think it is, and not a film for those with a rigid sense of reality.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.