Yes, despite having reputations as critics as hating all movies, we do have favorite movies. Every one of us critics has a movie that makes us as giddy as every other movie fan on the planet. Sure, for some of us more esoteric critics that favorite film can be something foreign or obscure but there are many critics who share a taste for the mainstream just like everyone else. For me, my choice bridges a particular cult-status bridge between the mainstream and the obscure.
The Big Lebowski was not a hit when it was released in 1997. It was met with lukewarm reviews and in the blinding glare following the Coen Brothers’ award winning and critically beloved Fargo, The Big Lebowski was seen by some to be a step down or a step backward for the beloved directors. Then, home video happened and a group of passionate individuals began to form an appreciation for the strange world of The Dude. That little world has become one of the most loyal unique cult-fandoms in existence today.
The Big Lebowski can seem impenetrable to audiences that are not on the film’s unique wavelength. It begins with a voiceover and music that is something out of an old western, if westerns ever began with narrators. Sam Elliott is the voice of someone who may be God, may be a ghost or just some omniscient figure whose fascination with The Dude we will come to adopt as the movie goes on.
We meet The Dude, AKA Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) in this humorous prologue wherein our narrator makes him out to be a folk hero for the late 90’s, a bathrobe clad layabout takin’er easy for all us sinners. The Dude arrives back at his humble apartment to find a pair of thugs who assault him, having mistaken him for another Jeffrey Lebowski (David Hiddleston), whose wife Bunny owes money to their employer.
The thugs soil The Dude’s prized rug before realizing they’ve grabbed the wrong guy. After the assault, The Dude goes bowling with his buddies, Walter (John Goodman) and Donnie (Steve Buscemi). It’s Walter who suggests that the real Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire, should pay for The Dude’s soiled rug and though The Dude may prefer being lazy, smoking weed and drinking white russians, with Walter’s prodding he does seek out the real Jeffrey Lebowski.
Here is where our plot kicks in like something out of a stoner Raymond Chandler novel. The Dude bungles his way into a scheme by Jeffrey Lebowski to make some money disappear. The Dude is made the bagman on a deal with some kidnappers who claim to have kidnapped Mr. Lebowski’s wife, Bunny (Tara Reid). Naturally, The Dude gets Walter involved and the whole plan goes sideways.
Among fans of The Dude, there is an unspoken rule that it takes three viewings before you finally get The Big Lebowski. This proved to be true for me. On my third time seeing The Big Lebowski, some time in 2001, the film stunned me by coming to life in ways I didn’t notice the first two times I saw it, in theaters in 1997 and on VHS in 1999. Seeing The Big Lebowski for the third time I picked up on layers of story and coincidence that eluded me the first two times through.
First and foremost were the little tricks of dialogue. The Dude, as brilliantly lived in by Jeff Bridges in his finest performance, soaks up the world around him and uses what he hears as a way of fitting in with the rest of the world. He hears President Bush utter the phrase “This aggression will not stand” in reference to Iraq and Kuwait, the film is set in 1991, he incorporates the phrase to express his anger at the soiling of his rug.
The Dude doesn’t express anger so much as parrot the way others demonstrate anger. He recognizes his own discomfort and through the words and actions of Walter or Mr Lebowski or the Police, he is able to express something similar from some selfish place in his weed addled psyche. It’s a fascinating way to build a character and it comes to full flower when The Dude is with Julianne Moore who plays his sort of love interest and the daughter of Mr. Lebowski, Maude Lebowski.
Moore, for her part, is doing a pitch perfect impression of Katherine Hepburn as a sexually voracious artist so painfully self-aware that her perfect diction and blunt directness make for the single funniest performance in any movie of the last 20 years. She delivers absurd line readings with the crisp perfection of a trained thespian and makes it appear effortless. It’s one of the finest and most underrated performance by an actress I have ever seen.
The rest of the supporting cast is equally distinctive in smaller roles. The glorious Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Mr Lebowski’s weaselly assistant Grant and his tightly coiled anxiety plays a similar high comic note to what Moore is playing with her unique voice and manner. Each actor is an instrument in this strange and loose comic symphony including Steve Buscemi as the perpetually put-down Donnie and John Turturro as the spiciest note, The Jesus, a rival bowler to The Dude and his team.
Ben Gazzara shows up for a couple of scenes playing a porn producer who worked with Bunny Lebowski and like everyone else, his oddly laid back performance plays yet another specific note in this comic symphony. Gazzara’s Jackie Treehorn functions as a part moving the plot of The Big Lebowski but like the rest of the supporting cast, he’s not merely existing on screen, his Jackie is filled with comic invention in his few moments of screen time.
I could go on for days and days about the layers of meaning throughout The Big Lebowski. The way dialogue seeps from one scene to the next taking on new comic meaning each time. The employment of a phrase played as another symphony note in this comic opera cum dimestore detective story. It is a divine work of genius, a true masterpiece in the guise of a shaggy dog detective story from the 1930’s.
I completely adore The Big Lebowski and will be getting the new edition of the DVD even as it doesn’t contain many new special features. There is a new case for the Blu Ray, upgrading from the plastic bowling ball of the previous special edition DVD release. There is also the inclusion of a documentary made about the fans of The Big Lebowski who turned this near forgotten follow-up to Fargo into a phenomenon that, arguably, surpasses the Coen’s Oscar nominated masterpiece in terms of beloved esteem, if not pure filmmaking.
The Big Lebowski is my favorite film of all time.