Friday, May 31, 2013

Film Friday: The Big Lebowski (1998)

Few people are indifferent when it comes to the Coen brothers. Most people either love them or hate them. Personally, I find their films to be either brilliant or completely flat, though even the brilliant ones are rarely satisfying. The Big Lebowski sits in the brilliant category. Interestingly, what makes this film work is that it provides compelling moments and it strings them together in a unique way.

** spoiler alert **
The 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.
In its initial run, the film faired poorly with critics and audiences alike. It brought in only $17 million. Over time, however, this film has attained cult status. Indeed, there are festivals to the film and there’s even an online religion (Dudeism) with 130,000 members. The film is now also widely regarded as genius by the same critics who panned it originally.
What Makes This Film Work
So 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.
Thus, for example, the Dude constantly mentions his rug, which we are repeatedly told “tied the room together.” This becomes the seeming motivation behind each scene even though none of the scenes have anything do with the rug and none of the characters care about it. Similarly, each character talks about “the money” to make it seem like the story is focused on the kidnapping plot, even though most of the characters don’t really care about that either. And everything always comes back to bowling even though none of the characters involved in the plot have anything to do with bowling. By constantly mentioning these things, the Coens manage to make each of the scenes feel completely related and like they are all working toward a single plot point, even though only a handful of the scenes really matter to the plot. This results in a fascinating bit of misdirection as it keeps you thinking the plot is moving forward when it really isn’t.
So why do this? Well, it allows the Coens to build each scene independently and to maximize the punch because they don’t need to worry about tying each scene into the plot story-wise. It also allows them to skip the transition scenes/“workman” parts of the plot that move the story along, but which hold little real interest. Thus, for example, we don’t need to watch the character do research or acquire a weapon or warn his girlfriend about what he’s doing. There are no montages as the characters get ready for a confrontation and there’s no scene where the characters are shown sneaking around. Instead, scene after scene is basically its own self-contained vignette of things that happen to the Dude during this period. Each is stylish, incredible, and unexpected. Ultimately, that gives each scene more punch and it makes each scene more interesting because, unlike other films, there are no points where you can tune out because you know what’s about to happen during the upcoming scene.

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:
Jesus (John Turturro): Jesus has NOTHING to do with the plot. He’s a convicted child molester who is now the world’s most bizarre bowler. You can’t help but watch this guy like a train wreck. And the use of the Gypsy King version of “Hotel California” as he licks his bowling ball is the kind of image you never forget (LINK).

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.
Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara): Treehorn comes out of nowhere in the film. He’s a pornographer and loan shark and Bunny owes him a lot of money. His scene leads to the film’s strange but fascinating dream sequence (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.

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.


shawn said...

Have to admit, I'm not a Cohen brothers fan. Best movie they have done, Raising Arizona. The first time I saw The Big Lebowski I didn't care for it. But I have come to like it over repeated viewings and the realization that it is a modern take on the old pulp style, hard-boiled detective stories.

AndrewPrice said...

shawn, I enjoyed it the first time, particularly the soundtrack, but I came to like it a lot more upon repeat viewing once I wasn't trying to follow the plot as closely. For me personally, this may be their best film.

If I was going to rank my favorites, it would be Lebowski, Hudsucker, Fargo, O Brother and Raising Arizona. After that it gets iffy fast.

AndrewPrice said...

This is off topic:

I managed to get my book into the prime program at Amazon two days ago (long story). So I've been able to make it free today and tomorrow. If you didn't buy it when it was a dollar -- go get it now.


Read it... think about it... tell your friends... leave a review. We'll discuss it in the future. Thanks.

Voz said...

Just downloaded the book...
I never was interested in seeing any of the Coen Bros. movies...although I have seen Fargo, O Brother, and didn't they do No Country for Old Men?

Anonymous said...

The Coens are hit or miss for me and overall I find them a bit overrated.

Having said that, I really need to see this movie again! I saw it once 15 years ago and didn't get it at all. My friends and I even quote the movie but none of us has seen it more that once!

Retro Hound said...

Love the Coens. The scene where the sheriff hits Dude with a coffee cup makes me laugh out loud every time. And the taxi driver who loves The Eagles. I just wish there wasn't so much swearing, it's way over the top.

Anonymous said...

The Coens are hit or miss for me. I like their comedies. Wednesday you posted an article about cynicism in films and to me the Coen brothers dramas pretty much embody that.
As far as The Big Lebowsky goes I felt that Sam Eliot's stop the movie and narrate bit actually helped by tying things together and wrapping it up.I guess you disagree but that's ,like,your opinion,man. Sorry,I couldn't resist. Forgive me :)

Backthrow said...

I'm a big Coen brothers fan; I can safely say there is no film they've made that I've disliked, though there was a short, weak period when they made INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and the remake of THE LADYKILLERS, both of which I'd put at the bottom of my list of their filmography. They have a very odd, droll sense of humor, which shows up even in their non-comedy films, that is totally on my wavelength. Also, like THE BIG LEBOWSKI, I find their films, in general, get better on repeat viewings, which is pretty amazing. I was a bit disappointed in LEBOWSKI when I first viewed it, but it's gotten better each time I've seen it, though I still would put a few films above it, like FARGO, MILLER'S CROSSING and O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU.

I disagree with Andrew about the Sam Elliot narrator; he, too, is a character in the film, and I'd be sorry if he was removed. He's worth it just for how he loses his train of thought while narrating our introduction to The Dude, and when he appears, in-person, later on in the movie, just to check in to see how The Dude is doing.

He's there because the Coens are making a gumshoe detective type movie, like THE BIG SLEEP, except casting a clueless aging slacker as the lead, instead of Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, and those have a tradition of voiceover narration. The fact that, in this case, it's by some old-school cowpoke, who seems inexplicably admiring and fascinated by someone like The Dude (rather than narration by The Dude himself), is a non sequitur joke, much like the other, unconnected-to-the-story elements of the movie (like John Turturro's sleazy bowling champ).

Floyd R. Turbo said...

Agree 100% with the review --

I like Intolerable Cruelty... the lawyer in me I guess.

Blood Simple is great as is No Country For Old Men... they can do deep when they want to.

The Big Lebowski only gets better with age while Raising Arizona seems stale to me -- though I do like it and parts of it are still LOL funny.

I never got Fargo for some reason. Hudsucker Proxy is genius.

If I had to rank... Big Lebowski, Blood Simple, No Country..., O Brother, Hudsucker, Raising AZ

AndrewPrice said...

Coz, They did do No Country For Old Men, which never resonated with me.

And I think you're in the majority when it comes to not liking the Coens. For me, they are really hit or miss. They've had a couple I really loved and a bunch that just left me totally cold.

(Enjoy the book! Please leave a review when if you can!)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I think this is one of their most "getable" movies. You should definitely watch it again.

In terms of the Coens, I think what they do which few others do is they provide you with films that are guaranteed to be different. And I think that's a really good thing, even when their efforts don't work out.

AndrewPrice said...

RetroHound, The taxi driver scene is a classic example of how this film works -- add a completely different song to the soundtrack, introduce a totally unexpected character, the scene means nothing to the film but somehow works within the film and seems to fit the plot.

AndrewPrice said...

GypsyTyger, I love that line! That's one of the most awkward quotes in movie history. LOL!

I can't disagree about Elliot, it just didn't work for me personally. The swearing comment is pretty funny though since that feels like the Coens are talking to themselves.

As for comedies v. drama, I agree. When they stay in funny mode, even when it's not that funny, I generally enjoy their films a lot. When they drift into dramas, they become REALLY cynical and sometimes painful. The one I really dislike though is Burn After Reading which billed itself as a comedy but really was a bad drama.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, I can't disagree on the narrator, I just didn't like it personally. I think you are correct in your analysis of why he's there and what his role is.

I agree too that their films get better with repeated viewing. I suspect that's because you get beyond the point of just trying to make sense of everything and you come to the point of just enjoying all the "moments" they include. They are, however, an acquired taste and clearly not for everyone.

Ultimately though, I like that. I think they bring genuine variety to Hollywood. And even when I don't like a film, I'm glad they made it.

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, I liked Fargo a lot, but it's also a film that is "hard to like" because the characters are painful to watch.

I agree about Raising Arizona: while I like that a lot, it does feel stale or dated somehow. At the same time, O Brother and Lebowski keep getting better over time.

I love Hudscuker. You know... for kids! LOL!

5minutes said...

I am an unashamed Lebowski lover.

The best way to understand Lebowski is that it's really not about anything. The plot, such that it is, is really very simple: there's some money that everyone wants. That's it. Everything else - and I mean everything - is about the characters, specifically, those whom The Dude encounters on his aimless wanderings.

And that's, in my opinion, what makes it work so well. It's a completely character-driven film that's more about motivations and consequence of choices than in a tradition journey from A to Z. In fact, there really isn't even a real journey from A to Z. It's all about the people.

Oh - and I'm saddened that one of the best characters was left out of the list: Donny. In what is probably the most understated role Steve Buscemi has ever played outside of the waiter cameo in Pulp Fiction, he plays the eternally bullied but decidedly smarter balance between Dude's Yin and Walt's Yang. His demise at the end comes out of nowhere and its purpose in the story is as pointless and aimless as the inclusion of The Jesus or the mystery of the nihilists' toe. And honestly, if it - or any of the rest - had had a point, I'd probably be less interested in the movie because it would've detracted from some of the most complex characters we saw in a 90's comedy.

AndrewPrice said...

5minutes, That's a good way to look at the film too. Overall, it seems to have a particular plot, but it's really not what's driving the movie. What drives the movie is the people the Dude meets and their bizarre stories.

Donnie is a good character indeed, but I try to keep these reviews as short as possible, so I always cut out a good deal more than I write at first and Donnie didn't make the cut. But you are right, he's an interesting balance between The Dude and Walter, especially as neither really ever listens to him. It puts him in a funny role of being the voice of reason that gets ignored.

The toe thing is funny, especially as the one scene where you really see Bunny is just there so you can see that she still has a toe.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - Lebowski is a well made film that touches on some of the most well known Coen philosophies. I never had it as high as a couple others (see discussion under my review of the Man Who Wasn't There.) I think it may have something to do with the very process you mention (a collection of scenes that are not really related, but are made to appear like they are.) That said, it does have several great scenes and memorable characters, and is definitely a cult classic for many. I guess my problem was I realized the scenes were not really tied together so it didn't hold my interest as well as some of the others. Realizing how much the Coens' dwell in the houses of Sartre and Camus, this did have a lot more to laugh about than say, The Man Who Wasn't There. And after awhile, I got tired of that same theme coming up so often. Maybe that is why I was so pleasantly surprised with there treatment of True Grit.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, It definitely gives the movie an odd feel, like it somehow doesn't fit together. And I can definitely see where that might make you downgrade the film. No argument on that. I think that bothered me the first time, but upon repeat viewing it doesn't bother me anymore.

BTW, Here's the link to Jed's review of The Man Who Wasn't There.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - I couldn't put a finger on what bothered me about that film until your review :)

AndrewPrice said...

Glad I could help! :)

darski said...

I just wanted to post an R.I.P. for Jean Stapleton. I loved her as Edith.

yeah way, way OT

AndrewPrice said...

darski, Agreed. RIP

El Gordo said...

I was a Coen fan ever since Blood Simple.
They had an unbroken string of master pieces with Miller´s Crossing, Barton Fink, Hudsucker, Fargo, Lebowski, O Brother. I can´t say their later work has equaled these (I haven´t seen A Serious Man - who has?).

Funny: I remember Ben Gazzara complaining (shortly after Lebowksi came out) that he finally got to appear in a Coen movie and it turned out to be their worst. Should have waited for the verdict of history. Well, he was in Dogville. So much for his judgement.

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