There are a lot of classic films that are on my ‘to see’ list and believe me, it grows by the day as people message me and ask me to review old black-and-white Soviet films that are all analogies about capitalism (I’m only mildly exaggerating, okay, moderately) but there are a few that I want to watch more than others.
I’ve said before that I tend to avoid films that have already been universally acclaimed, I think that adding another voice to something that the universe has already decided is good is a bit redundant, especially if I’m just going to parrot the same praise everyone else has, I’ll usually only touch them if A. I felt passionate about them or felt they needed to be talked about, or B. I have a wildly different opinion to the general consensus. I’ll let you decide which camp this film falls into.
Although, to call The Big Lebowski ‘universally acclaimed’ might be over-egging the pudding somewhat; it’s a well-loved film amongst its audience, but it falls too much into the category of cult, or niche, film to be considered an all-time classic. It’s no Godfather, but in the realm of the cult film, it’s certainly on the higher tier, it belongs to the class of cult film that gained its notoriety by being a good film that few people saw, as opposed to being an ungodly pile of tripe that’s funny to watch in a group with a bottle of vodka on hand.
It also comes to us from a well-regarded filmmaking duo too, that of the Coen Brothers, the quirky sibling directors behind Fargo and No Country For Old Men, amongst others, who made their name with offbeat, often black, comedies about strange and interesting characters, a niche that The Big Lebowski fills perfectly.
The film itself is a modern twist on the old ‘mistaken identity’ plot, albeit occupied with more White Russian-slurping hippies and Germans with questionable accents than usual.
It tells the story of Jeff Lebowski, (Jeff Bridges) or ‘The Dude’ as he and his friends call him, being mistaken for a rich businessman with the same name. Far from living in mansions with trophy wives though, The Dude is a slacker with a penchant for bowling, and when his rich namesake’s wife is supposedly kidnapped, The Dude is dragged into the unfolding mystery, taking his perpetually-angry Vietnam vet friend Walter with him as chaos ensues.
Although I’d never seen the film, I was, of course, familiar with The Dude. He’s one of modern cinemas most quoted (and GIF-able, if that’s a word) figures, and he most certainly did not disappoint. Jeff Bridges is brilliant in this film, probably his most defining role, and certainly the one he’s most recognised for, but the brilliance of the character lies in its organic weirdness, how The Dude reacts to the world around him, and how they, in turn, react to him.
He’s portrayed as some kind of mythic figure amongst his friends, revered and referred to by them by only his self-appointed moniker, he emits this radioactive level of coolness, while also being roundly mocked by the subtext of the film.
He’s simultaneously like a fairytale character come to life to his friends with this zen level of laziness, but also such a character many people will recognise from their own lives. He’s like a guy in his 30’s who befriends university students and insist they call him ‘The Prophet’, they all think he’s wise and enlightened, but really he’s just on enough dope to knock out Cheech Marin.
The way he’s referred to and almost idolised makes you realise how cults get started (and indeed, there is now a religion based around him, which just proves my point) all the while, all the normal characters are pointing out what a lazy ass he actually is, it’s a wonderful trick to make a character seem this cool, while also roundly mocking them and their entire philosophy.
He isn’t the only stand-out character though, for me, the most reliable laughs came from John Goodman’s unhinged performance as Walter. A supposed Vietnam veteran whose temper is so wild that he pulls out a pistol for a foul in a bowling game, all the while calmy rationalising it because ‘it’s a league game’. His consistent outbursts, diatribes, and constant shutdowns of Donny (Steve Buscemi) are the ying to The Dude’s yang and offer a nice bit of balance to the film, character-wise.
There are things I don’t get about the film, I don’t understand the bowling side-plot, for instance. Was bowling a big thing in the late ’90s? I certainly don’t see why it was such a big character crutch for the film, to use it as a quick side plot might have been funny, but it’s the constant backdrop they keep returning to, and I’m not sure I understand why. It feels like the film is already juggling to keep the kidnapping plot coherent without trying to juggle bowling balls as well.
It does offer a few laughs though, such as the aforementioned scene where Walter pulls a gun on someone for disagreeing on a foul, then there’s the character of Jesus, who adds absolutely nothing to the overall plot, but it the requisite injection of Coen-brand weirdness dialled-up to eleven. The film would have worked perfectly fine without him, but he’s funny while he’s there nonetheless.
As I said a few paragraphs ago, the main plot is very much a juggling act, revolving around a kidnapping plot, and introducing more angles and possibilities as it wears on, introducing avant-garde artists, German nihilists, and more Walter antics as the intrigue wears on, and the impressive thing is that it manages to keep all of these plates spinning without dropping a single one. There might be the odd wobble but on the whole, it all works incredibly well.
It is a little messy, especially as it wears on, and I’d say it concludes just before it ran out of steam and started testing my patience, again, not to beat on the film too much but I did feel like there were a few unnecessary additions to the formula like the private detective who shows up near the end and gets no resolution, or the ‘video artist’ (played by David Thewlis) who is also in a scene and adds nothing. It does add to the hazy feel the film is going for and works with the overall aesthetic, I just feel like a few corners could have been sanded off for efficiency.
In many ways, The Dude is the perfect representation of this film as a whole, he stumbles through life in a messy haze, while somehow managing to be occasionally coherent and obtain an almost god-like level of admiration among his friends, and sneering contempt from those outside his little bubble, he’s a wonderful character study, played perfectly by a very talented actor.
Overall then, it’s easy to see the appeal of this film, and why it has achieved its status as a cult comedy classic. It’s hilarious at times, messy in others, but perfectly brings across a clearly aesthetic, telling a well-worn story through unique and interesting characters, it’s no surprise why this film is beloved by fans, and why the Coens enjoy Dude levels of admiration for their outside-the-box films and characters.