I love going deep on my favorite movies, but it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees. I could write reams about the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (and millions of college students across this country already have), but here’s the point: it’s possibly the funniest film ever made.
Jeff Bridges is Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, who gets mixed up with a wealthier man also named Jeffrey Lebowski. The big Lebowski is being taken advantage of by a number of colorful characters, and more for selfish reasons than noble ones, The Dude decides to investigate. Supposedly based on real-life writer, indie film producer, and layabout Jeff Dowd,* The Dude is absolutely the last guy one would want playing detective on one’s behalf, which is exactly what makes the movie so funny.
Every time I watch this movie I notice something different and wildly funny about the Dude. This time, it was Bridges’ eyes, and the many different flavors of utter disbelief that they display. Occasionally The Dude will have enough respite from the craziness that he can settle into a sort of stoned indifference, but most of time he’s just trying to figure out what’s going on around him. As much as The Dude would like to be the smartest guy in the room, Bridges refuses to even once play him that way, which is something that the great actors are great at.
The Dude’s problem is more than just the “lotta ins, lotta outs” of the case. As in a lot of Coen Brothers movies, their Los Angeles is an absurd place that just isn’t so easily understood. Raymond Chandler’s detective novels were clearly an inspiration here, and as in The Big Sleep – where one of the murders went unsolved because Chandler got too drunk to remember to wrap it up – there are a number of storylines that are left hanging. This time it’s not because of drunkenness, but just because that’s the way the world goes.
The Coens even make fun of the way that these sorts of stories have tidy plots by introducing the ludicrous character of The Stranger, an Old West-style cowboy played by the inimitable Sam Elliot. The Stranger often loses his train of thought in the middle of narrating, and his explanations of the story for the audience’s benefit are either way too flowery or they make no sense. It’s not that he’s a bad narrator, it’s just that there’s no reason for him to be there and no explanation as to how he’s all-knowing. He’s purposefully absurd.
Much like Airplane!, the funny moments in this film come so fast and furious that in a setting like Movie Klub it may be impossible to hear dialogue in some scenes due to the laughter. The difference is that Airplane! has a lot more traditional jokes, but The Big Lebowski gets its humor more from the weirdness of the characters. There’s nothing in Airplane! like the landlord with his unspeakably awful dance quintet (“y’know, my cycle?”), or the two hallucinatory dream sequences.
Like a well-written stand-up comedy routine, The Big Lebowski keeps circling back around on itself, referring to prior lines and previous jokes again and again. Many times a smart-sounding line will be repeated later, misused or in the wrong context for hilarious effect (“this aggression will not stand, man!”). You might say that this is the Coens laughing at the characters and holding them in contempt – a criticism that has followed them their entire careers – but a warm-hearted conclusion, where The Stranger finally says something sensible, keeps the film’s heart in exactly the right place.
The thing I love the most about this movie is how it still has some mysteries for me. For instance, at the end of the movie Walter tells The Dude to call the police because “I’m leakin’ blood, might pass out.” But Walter isn’t bleeding; no one landed a blow on him in the fight we just saw, and the blood on his face is someone else’s. So why does he say it? Is there a reason, some kind of joke that I’m missing? Or maybe Walter is just in shock, or a moron, or both? This is a movie you’ll want to watch so many times that such questions come into your head. Just remember the big picture: it’s hilarious.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Dowd, like Jeff Lebowski in the movie, was a member of the Seattle Seven.