The Big Lebowski (1998)
Written by Joel & Ethan Coen
Directed by Ethan Coen
Why is The Big Lebowski still so damn funny? Rewatching it for this series; I think the 6th time I saw the movie, I was still laughing as hard as I did the first time. The comedy comes out of a common trope in the genre, the juxtaposition of opposing concepts. You can bring up tons of humorous situations by placing two things beside each other that don’t contradict so much as they don’t belong together at all. In the instance of The Big Lebowski, this is taking a Raymond Chandler noir novel and making the protagonist an old stoner hippie rather than a square-jawed private investigator. It’s a concept that, on paper, doesn’t pop as spectacularly; however, because of the sharpness of the Coens’ writing and the performances they get from their actors, the film is a transcendent comedy experience.
Set in Los Angeles during the early 1990s, during the Gulf War, we follow Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges). The inciting incident is when The Dude returns from a night of bowling to be accosted by a pair of thugs. They demand the money that Lebowski’s wife owes them and proceed to pee on The Dude’s rug. It really tied the room together. The thing is, The Dude is not married, so he has no idea what the hell they are talking about. It turns out there is another Lebowksi, Jeffrey, a wealthy philanthropist. The Dude visits this man after his friend and bowling partner Walter Sobchek (John Goodman) argues that the rich guy should pay for a new rug. This excursion only pulls The Dude deeper into this complicated web of gambling debts and angered parties. By the time this is over, we’re up to our necks in nihilists, a disgruntled adult daughter, a porn mogul, private investigators, a bowling pederast, a mustachioed stranger, and the consequences of what happens when, quoting Walter, “You fuck a stranger in the ass.”
The Big Lebowski was the Coens’ follow-up to the widely successful Fargo, and this movie didn’t do well. Critics didn’t quite know what to make of it; people who didn’t know the Coen aesthetic were shocked at how strange it was. With twenty-five years between us and this movie, a pattern can be established in the work of these brothers. They make what they feel like without interest in tonal consistency between pieces. Each film is its own thing, often with some of the same troupe of actors, but the Coens are perfectly comfortable doing whiplash to the audience. I love it, and some movies I didn’t get at first, like Burn After Reading, have become some of my favorites in the brothers’ catalog. The comedy is more in the story than in the performances and situations.
Walter Sobchek is a standout supporting character because of John Goodman’s performance. I cannot say I have ever seen the actor play someone like this, and he does it so well. Walter is a pompous idiot, likely one of the funniest people you could put in a story like this. Walter is confident he is right at every turn as he does things that infuriate The Dude. The punchline of the whole film is that, yes, Walter was right in the end, which shouldn’t be the case. Walter’s methods were ineffective, but his initial deduction about Jeffrey Lebowski’s wife is not exactly right but close to the truth. Things are not what they seem on the surface. Within Walter, we find more contradictions that create humor: He is all about being an assertive alpha male yet cares for his ex-wife’s dog while she and her new husband are on vacation or still adheres to the tenets of Judaism after converting for marriage. We don’t expect these character traits; their revelation is hilarious.
Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a character whose contradictions with the people around him make his nervous energy much funnier. His employer, Jeffrey Lebowski, loves to bellow conservative rants about bootstraps, while Brandt opts for using more diplomatic language, often in the same scenes. The Dude’s casual nature when he first meets with Jeffrey bounces off Brandt’s energy which communicates his worry about everything going smoothly. Hoffman was always an actor that would take even a more minor role like this and elevate it to something incredibly memorable.
I also cannot emphasize how strong the cinematography of Roger Deakins is in this movie. This and Young Frankenstein are probably the best-looking comedies ever made. Deakins, who has now become associated with more dramatic fare, helmed the camera for twelve Coen productions starting with 1991’s Barton Fink and concluding with Hail, Caesar! in 2016. The Big Lebowski is a showcase for his talent, with some of the richest, most textured images you’ll see on screen. The same quality Deakins brings to a “more serious picture” like Sicario is present here. He manages to tweak it to fit the tone, but all the colors, shadows, and everything in between are presented beautifully.
It’s hard to think of much to say about The Big Lebowski that has yet to be said in the hundreds of articles and analyses. It’s a hilarious movie that deserves the praise it gets. It shows a mastery of the comedy on the part of the Coens. They understand what makes a situation funny, from the aesthetic aspects to the performances to the dialogue, and they showcase it all here. What makes that feat all the more impressive is they have also directed some of the best dramas ever made, including but not limited to No Country For Old Men. These filmmaking brothers cemented themselves as some of the greatest American filmmakers of all time across multiple genres. The sad thing is that the brothers no longer appear to be making movies together.
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