** spoiler alert **
PlotThe Big Lebowski is a sort-of-comedy centered around Jeff Lebowski aka “the Dude” (Jeff Bridges). He’s a slacker who lives in Los Angeles. Bowling is the only thing that matters in his life. The Dude becomes a pawn in a kidnapping plot when he is mistaken for another Lebowski and some thugs appear at his house and threaten him. In the process, they urinate on his rug. This upsets him because “the rug really tied the room together,” and he decides to see the Lebowski they were really after to get compensation for his rug. In the process, he and his bowling buddies run into a veritable freak show of characters.
What Makes This Film WorkSo what made this film work? Well, ultimately, what really works here is that the Coen brothers created a film which draws you in. It does that with strange characters who make you curious and by making each scene compelling. To do that, the Coens do something interesting. They abandon the traditional mechanics of plot, i.e. each scene must efficiently convey the next plot point, with each step in the plot being shown, each scene logically following from the last, and nothing irrelevant being included. Instead, the Coens make each scene its own fantastic little moment which only vaguely makes sense in the overall plot, and they tie all these scenes together with themes.
That’s half the puzzle. That allowed the Coen brothers to make a more interesting film because each scene feels more like a highlight with it’s own build up and climax, and there are no “down” parts of the film. But that alone would not be enough to make a good film without them also filling the scenes with memorable images. That’s where the film really shines. Consider these characters and their moments:
LINK).This is a wild collection of characters. They are fun to watch, shocking and memorable. Each is also set free to roam the scenes in which they appear. They aren’t bound by the plot or the need to give plot points. If something has to be said, it will be said, but not before you get to see them do their thing, and not before the scene leaves you with a couple memorable moments and images. These scenes also expertly incorporate a strong, but eclectic soundtrack.
● Walter (John Goodman): Walter is the Dude’s best friend and teammate. He turns everything into some point about Vietnam. He’s converted to Judaism, and clearly misunderstands it. Bowling is his real religion. He’s also intensely hotheaded. He causes trouble constantly. He also gives us the great image of himself bullying a twelve year old, destroying a car (it’s the wrong car), and a scene involving some ashes you have to see to believe.
● The Nihilists: The people who supposedly kidnapped Bunny are a gang of German nihilists. It turns out they are really a new wave band – Autobahn. The lead singer Uli Kunkel (Peter Stormare) appeared in a porno film with Bunny as Karl Hungus. And they don’t even have Bunny. They just want money, but aren’t competent.
● Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston): Lebowski is a wheelchair-bound millionaire... sort of. Bunny is his trophy wife. He’s insulting, condescending and talks about his success. He comes across as part general, part madman, part villain and God knows what else. He and his butt-kissing henchman Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman) pull the Dude into the kidnapping plot.
● Maude (Julianne Moore): Oy. She’s a feminist, avant-garde artist who describes her work as “strongly vaginal.” She’s Lebowski’s daughter and she’s the one who really owns the money. She introduced Bunny to Uli, and she decides she wants to have a child with The Dude... but wants nothing else to do with him. This results in memorable scenes like the obnoxiously laughing David Thewlis and a naked painting session that involves a harness and two musclemen dressed in leather.
This is why this film stands out. It stands out because it delivers punch after punch and it does so without all the usual necessary-but-uninteresting scenes that other films employ. It’s an interesting way to make a film actually. It’s kind of a cross between the avant-garde films of the 1960s, which stink, and modern films. And in this case, it works really well.
All of that said, there are two things I don’t like about this film. The narrator (Sam Elliot) lends the film an unreal feeling which detracts from a film which is already right on the edge of believability. The film would be stronger without him. Secondly, while the film is fun and the scenes are great, the film ultimately feels unsatisfying to me because it doesn’t wrap up. It just kind of ends. This is a direct result of the film not having the normal narrative structure and I think the Coens failed to compensate for that by not giving the film a definite climax. Still, it’s absolutely worth seeing.