The Big Lebowski
Directed by Joel Coen. Starring Jeff Bridges, Sam Elliott, John Goodman, Ben Gazzara, Jon Polito, Tara Reid, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman. (1998, R, 117 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 6, 1998
The Coen Brothers -- Joel and Ethan -- go for broke in The Big Lebowski, and we the viewers are the winners. With The Big Lebowski they take their now-familiar brand of absurdist mystery/crime/thriller -- writ visually large -- and turn the whole mélange into a fresh new affair. It's paved with delightfully irregular and unanticipated bits of business that stimulate the viewer to stay fully alert, while renewing our faith in the sheer joy of watching movies. In its wonderful title sequence, The Big Lebowski quite literally announces itself as a tumbling tumbleweed of a movie, a go-with-the-flow yarn that intends to drift toward cohesion. And who better to star in a tall tale such as this than a go-with-the-flow character like the Dude (Bridges)? The Dude is a lazy, crumpled leftover from the Sixties whose laid-back daily routine has been pared down to the essentials: weed, White Russians, and bowling with his pals Walter (Goodman), a hotheaded and hazily militaristic vet full of half-baked ideas and an ability to bring any discussion back to 'Nam, and Donny (Buscemi), a dim but good-hearted schlub who always lags a beat or two behind any conversation. A case of mistaken identity causes some nasty goons to break into the Dude's ramshackle apartment, rough him up, and soil his rug. All the Dude wants now is his rug (“because it really tied the room together”), so at Walter's urging he follows the trail of the rug-pissers and thereby becomes embroiled in an intersecting mix of kidnapping, pornography, German nihilists, sultry women, gumshoes, missing money, and missing toes. It's almost enough to interfere with league bowling. But, oh, the characters the Dude meets along the way-. The film is populated with rich, colorful figures: David Huddleston as the Big Lebowski, a wealthy, pompous, wheelchair-bound corporate achiever; Philip Seymour Hoffman as his toady assistant; Julianne Moore as the idiosyncratically mannered artist Maude; Ben Gazzara as the porn entrepreneur Jackie Treehorn; and Sam Elliott as the Stranger, the cowpoke whose inexplicably omniscient voiceover narrates the Dude's story. Then there are all the secondary characters, any of whom could be excised from the story and never hurt the narrative flow. We are the ones who would be deprived of never having known them -- characters like Jesus, John Turturro's heart-arresting turn as the flamboyant Latin pederast bowler; David Thewlis' perversely twittering art-world friend of Maude's; and Smokey, the pacifist bowler played by Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Also punctuating The Big Lebowski are a couple of visually wild and elaborate fantasy/dream sequences, one of them a Busby Berkeley bowling/porn phantasmagoria more outsized and ambitious than anything the Coen Brothers have tried in the past. More like Raising Arizona with its crazy kidnapping plot than straight-ahead narratives like Fargo, The Big Lebowski is also very site specific. It is an L.A. movie, calling to mind the worlds of Raymond Chandler and The Big Sleep. All the film's details -- cinematography, costumes, music -- are note perfect. Some viewers have criticized the movie for being too much of a shaggy dog story, lacking a cohesive point or purpose. Yet to look for the point is to miss it entirely. Coen-heads hop aboard for the ride.