The Big Lebowski

As much as I enjoyed The Big Lebowski, I’d hesitate to recommend it to anyone but die-hard fans of the Coen brothers. Such willfully bizarre Coen efforts as Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy seem designed to split viewers into two categories: those who get it and those who don’t (and the latter viewers usually don’t even show up). The Big Lebowski isn’t a relatively straight movie like their crossover hit Fargo, which the uninitiated could take as a weirder-than-usual crime drama. No, the new film finds the Coens firmly back on their deadpan-wacko Raising Arizona turf.

Abduction plots have served the Coens well, and here they are again with ransom notes and inept kidnappers (if there isn’t a film-school thesis on the motif of kidnapping in the Coens’ films, there probably will be). Jeff Bridges, returning to his shaggy King Kong look, stars as the typical Coen hero: Jeff Lebowski, a stoner and bowler who prefers to be addressed as “the Dude.” He has the same name as a disabled billionaire (David Huddleston), which leads to a misunderstanding wherein two thugs show up at the Dude’s hovel, rough him up, and pee on his rug. The other Lebowski’s trophy wife, you see, has been running up debts all over L.A.; when she’s kidnapped, the big Lebowski hires the Dude as a courier for the ransom.

As if the plot even mattered in most Coen movies. The Big Lebowski, like the Coens’ most underrated film The Hudsucker Proxy, is an excuse for Joel and Ethan’s patented stylized dialogue (“He’s a good doctor, and thorough“) and unapologetic caricatures. Coen veteran John Goodman is one of the latter, as the Dude’s Vietnam-vet bowling buddy Walter, who takes care of his ex-wife’s pooch and refuses to bowl on Jewish holidays. There’s also the big Lebowski’s “artist” daughter Maude (Julianne Moore, trying to out-enunciate Jennifer Jason Leigh in Hudsucker), who has about as much reason to be in the film as anyone else — which is to say, not much except to set up a gag or say things that nobody outside a Coen film would say.

The Coens shrewdly cast Jeff Bridges against type. Usually, Bridges is the most alert of actors; he was ideal as the alien in Starman, trying Earth customs on for size. The Dude, however, is blissfully oblivious, and Bridges gives a relaxed slapstick performance. Sometimes he’s funny just sitting there, spread out across the back seat of a limo, sipping White Russians that always stain his mustache. But underneath this slacker is a hard-working professional — Bridges does more with his deflated body language than many comedians can manage by chewing the furniture.

Like Bridges, the Coens are pros whose work doesn’t look like work at all — it looks like goofing off — until you see Coen wannabes try it and fall flat on their faces. The Big Lebowski doesn’t really come together; it’s as if the Coens consciously avoided easy, audience-pleasing wrap-ups and character arcs. (Another motif in the Coens’ work is offscreen deaths of major characters: Judy Davis and John Mahoney in Barton Fink, the kidnapped wife in Fargo. There’s another one here.)

The movie is the Coens’ acknowledged tribute to Raymond Chandler (just as Miller’s Crossing was a nod to Hammett and Blood Simple their version of James M. Cain), and Chandler wasn’t all that concerned with plot coherence either — he used a story as a clothesline on which to hang vivid characters, snappy patter, and local color. That sums up every Coen film, including this one.

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