Saturday, November 7, 2009

1998: The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen)

Released: March 6, 1998

Director: Joel Coen; Screenplay: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen; Cinematography: Roger Deakins; Studio: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment and Gramercy Pictures; Producer: Ethan Coen

Cast: Jeff Bridges (The Dude), John Goodman (Walter Sobchak), Steve Buscemi (Donny Kerabatsos), Julianne Moore (Maude Lebowski), David Huddleston (Jeffrey Lebowski), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Brandt), Tara Reid (Bunny Lebowski), John Turturro (Jesus Quintana), James G. Hoosier (Liam), Jack Kehler (Marty), Jimmie Dale Gilmore (Smokey), Sam Elliott (The Stranger), Jon Polito (Da Fino), Ben Gazzara (Jackie Treehorn)

- “That rug really tied the room together.”

And we resume the countdown after a few days delay with a personal favorite that never ceases to make me laugh every time I watch it. I had anticipated a tough decision for 1998 and decided to go back and revisit the two top contenders, despite the fact that I have watched both of them countless times. For me, two movies tower above all the rest in this year: The Big Lebowski and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. These are radically different films, but both reach the status of “great” in my opinion. After re-watching both another time, though, the decision ultimately wasn’t very tough. Lebowski is just too much fun, is too hilarious the entire way through, for me to not recognize it as my #1 for the year.

So while this post will deal with what I consider to be the greatest comedy released in decades, I do at least want to comment on my close runner-up. The Thin Red Line seems to elicit wildly diverging opinions, as do all Malick films. I’m by no means trying to convert anyone – it is what it is. Typical Malick, which for someone who enjoys his filmmaking is an absolute treat. Others are immediately turned off by his use of narration or the meandering, seemingly aimless flow of his storylines. I love it all. It astounds me to think that the man had not made a film in two decades. And, while this doesn’t really speak to the quality of the film, the use of the song “Jisas Yu Hand Blong Mi” by the Melanesian Choir is spine-tingling. I have no clue as to the words they’re singing, but it’s about the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard. If I ever walk through any sort of Pearly Gates, I hope that’s the soundtrack to the entrance.

Now, after that digression, we return to the actual selection. My guess is that most people reading this find The Big Lebowski to at least be mildly entertaining and funny. What I am interested in seeing is how many are willing to not only admit to enjoying it, but place it among the greatest films released in the entire decade. In my mind there is no question that it deserves such lofty praise. I always have an incredibly difficult time comparing comedies of different eras, even more so than dramas. Comedies have changed so much over the years, with so many more types of humor becoming acceptable in films; it’s not easy to compare a Coen Brothers movie to a Chaplin or Sturges classic. So I am in no way trying to make such direct comparisons. But in assessing things based purely on personal enjoyment, I’d have to consider The Big Lebowski the funniest movie I’ve ever seen. Hands down, bar none, whatever other cliché expression you want to add to drive home the point.

The story is like a Billy Wilder comedy meeting a Howard Hawks noir… done in R-rated fashion, of course. Jeff Lebowski, a man universally known as The Dude (Jeff Bridges) to everyone he interacts with, is mistaken with a different Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston). The other man, the “Big Lebowski,” is a millionaire who has a trophy wife (Tara Reid) passing out bad IOUs throughout Los Angeles. When an angry creditor decides to collect by force, he dispatches two thugs to scare Lebowski into paying. But they of course get the wrong Lebowski and end up peeing on a rug in the tiny apartment of The Dude. Angry about the damage done to his precious rug, The Dude decides to find the real Lebowski and have him refund him for the damage. Through this one meeting, The Dude is dragged into a convoluted plot that sees him acting as an intermediary in trying to recover the kidnapped Bunny Lebowski.

We follow the laid-back life of The Dude, a world which revolves around bowling, White Russians, and a copious amount of drugs. The Dude is referred to as the laziest man in Los Angeles, a title that is borne out in watching how he lives the life of the ultimate slacker. We come to intimately know his core group of friends which consists of his two bowling partners, Walter (John Goodman) and Donnie (Steve Buscemi). The volatile Walter is a character like none ever witnessed on-screen. A Vietnam veteran and a converted Jew, Walter appears wound too tight to function, ready to snap at the slightest provocation. He blames every obstacle encountered in his life on Vietnam and usually responds violently when challenged. Donnie, on the other hand, is reserved and a little off mentally, but is always a loyal follower of the adventures of The Dude and Walter. Along the way we see The Dude through thefts, ransom drops, psychedelic dream sequences, and so much more.

The title is no mistake, as much like Hawks’s The Big Sleep, the plot of The Big Lebowski becomes completely irrelevant. It’s intriguing to try and figure out the caper at the center of the adventure, but it’s never the overwhelming focus of the film. And how could it be with all of the entertaining and quirky scenes scattered throughout? It’s hard to care about Bunny Lebowski when you’re watching something like Walter pulling a gun on a fellow bowler for committing a foot fault. Or seeing an irate Jesus Quintana (John Turturro) berate the trio of The Dude, Walter and Donnie for getting their upcoming match postponed. Instead, the thrill comes in simply observing the situations The Dude finds himself in and how he and everyone else react. Just listening to The Dude and Walter talking to each other about the kidnapping is infinitely more interesting than anything they could do in actually trying to solve it.

The performances throughout the film are nothing short of spectacular. I have always been a big fan of how the Coens tend to use a core group of stock players int their films. It reminds me of another comedic genius who did the same thing: Preston Sturges. In Lebowski, a number of their regulars shine. Steve Buscemi plays the simpleminded Donnie to perfection, coming off as something like a mascot to the team of The Dude and Walter. Although only involved in two sequences, John Turturro makes them possibly the most memorable scenes in the entire film. Jesus Quintana, and his troubled history as recounted by Walter, is not easily forgotten. But of all the stock players in the Coen camp, it is John Goodman that delivers a career-defining performance. It’s a performance that is oftentimes over the top, but can also be quite subtle. To be certain, the most hilarious parts of the movie involve Walter in one of his many irate moments. But Goodman’s performance is so good (pardon the bad pun!) that he is able to make me snicker just with simple facial expressions. When the Coens perform the sweeping shots through the bowling alley, I can’t help but laugh just looking at Walter. Still, it’s Walter firing off the dialogue written by the Coens that makes him so memorable. When he launches into one of his tirades about Vietnam, pacifism, or the Gulf War, it is comedic perfection. There is no doubt that Walter Sobchak remains one of my favorite characters of any movie ever made.

The amazing thing is that _all_ of the supporting roles in the film are top notch. Bunny Lebowski is on-screen for less than ten total minutes, but produces one of the funniest exchanges in the film. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Brandt delivers another subtle, hilarious performance. Julianne Moore is as quirky as possible. Huddleston’s Jeffrey Lebowski is pompous and irritating, which is precisely what is called for the in the role. And has there ever been a more perfect marriage of role and actor than Sam Elliott as The Stranger? It is superb casting all the way around.

And yet, at the center of it all is The Dude. As I said, my personal favorite performance will always be Goodman as Walter, but there is no denying that Bridges’s The Dude is the heart and soul of the entire film. I was honestly shocked when I first saw this, because I was so used to Jeff Bridges excelling with such intelligent characters, not as slackers like The Dude. But any doubts one would have about his being fit for such a role are cast aside very early in the film. Once you see his reaction and smartass retorts after being bombarded by Jackie Treehorn’s (Ben Gazzara) goons, it’s obvious that he can pull this one off just as easily. Through the spectacular work of Bridges, the character of The Dude has attained a legend all its own.

Those that are quick to dismiss it as simply another stoner comedy – as many critics did upon its initial release – are overlooking what an intelligent film this is. Yes, some of the comedy is pure gutter humor, but the Coens are so talented as writers that they are able to make such stupidity and zaniness come across as incredibly clever. It’s the dialogue they write, the way that the characters play off of each other, reacting to the absurdness of it all. I hate to try and sound like some sort of highbrow Coens fan, but some of the references in the film that I find hilarious are completely lost on others that I’ve watched it with. Things like Walter responding by quoting Lenin when Donnie is reciting lyrics to “I Am the Walrus.” Or things like mentioning Tevye, Theodor Herzl, or other non-pop culture references. It’s like intellectual bawdiness.

I remember way back in 1936 in this countdown, when I chose Chaplin’s Modern Times as my #1 of the year, I pointed out how difficult it would be try and pick out the funniest scene in the film. For me, doing so in The Big Lebowski is even more of an impossibility. Is it the early “that rug really tied the room together" bit? Or how about the famed diner scene? Or maybe I would go with the failed money drop? Or Walter’s explosion over being scheduled to bowl on Shabbas? Maybe it’s the argument between The Dude and Walter over Walter’s conversion to Judaism, when he invokes famed Jews ranging from Moses to Sandy Koufax? Walter's interrogation of Larry? Or perhaps The Dude’s explosion in the cab over The Eagles? I could go on for pages trying to decide which one is my favorite and I still might not reach a conclusive answer.

The Big Lebowski was the Coens's follow up to the wildly successful Fargo and many still view it as a significant drop-off in quality. I couldn’t disagree more. Fargo certainly was a wonderful achievement, but to my eyes The Big Lebowski raised the bar for the Coens to a level that they still haven’t managed to approach again.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1998:
My first runner-up I’ve already discussed. I’m a Terrence Malick junkie, so it’s only natural that I rank The Thin Red Line very high. These two films stand well above all of the rest, but there are a number of films just below that have long been favorites of mine: Pi (Darren Aronofsky), American History X (Tony Kaye), Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer), Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg), Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur), and The Red Violin (Francois Girard).


  1. That's an interesting choice to say the least. And given the tremendous cult status that Big Lebowski continues to enjoy even after a decade of its release, does speak of something. Though personally, my Coen favourites are Fargo & No Country for Old Men, Big Lebowski would surely make their top 3 or 4 for me.

    Though I can't say that I'm not surprised at your choice for 1998's movie of the year, your decision to select a movie for the simple and honest reason that you absolutely love it, certainly deserves kudos.

  2. Really liking it is certainly a major part of the reason, but I genuinely think it's a great comedy, so it's not purely on personal taste. Personal taste was just the deciding factor to tip the scales in its favor over The Thin Red Line.

  3. "mildly entertaining and funny" - yes, that speaks for me. I could never get into the rhythm of this movie and always felt left away from all the fun. Some day, I'll try once more.

    My favs:

    A Bug's Life (Lasseter, Stanton)
    A Civil Action (Zaillian)
    Rush Hour (Ratner)
    Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg)
    Central Station (Salles)
    Following (Nolan)
    Hyderabad Blues (Kukunoor)
    History of Cinema (Godard)
    Run Lola Run (Tykwer)
    The Apple (Makhmalbaf)

  4. Not one of my favorite films Dave. While I like the Coen's film, and this was entertaining enough I don't think it is one of their best IMO.

    # 1 Shakespeare in Love

    Out of Sight
    Gods and Monsters
    The Truman Show
    A Simple Plan

  5. Like I said, I don't expect a whole lot of folks to place it this high... although if MovieMan pops up, I suspect he might come close to doing so. For the record, here is probably how I would rank my top 5 Coens films:

    1. The Big Lebowski
    2. Miller's Crossing
    3. Barton Fink
    4. Blood Simple
    5. Fargo

  6. Dave, I thought you were going to go with The Thin Red Line, but I'm glad you didn't. Private Ryan wins World War 2 for this particular year despite of some mawkish moments because Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski literally changed the way movies film action in their incredible battle scenes. So for me it was between Ryan and Lebowski, and I think I'll go with Lebowski because it is a one-of-a-kind screwball noir that's well on its way into American folklore.

    The rest:
    3. Out of Sight
    4. Pi
    5. Affliction (Paul Schrader)
    6. Run Lola Run
    7. A Simple Plan
    8. Bulworth (Warren Beatty)
    9. Fear and Loathing in Las Veags (Terry Gilliam)
    10. Elizabeth

  7. Well, I've popped up...

    "What I am interested in seeing is how many are willing to not only admit to enjoying it, but place it among the greatest films released in the entire decade."

    You can certainly count me in. I've shared most of my thoughts already on the Wonders thread, but Big Lebowski remains both a personal favorite I could probably watch in a loop for eternity (give me a few White Russians and roaches to wash it down, but they're probably not necessary) and a tremendous achievement.

    Perhaps it's necessary to find it hilarious before you find it brilliant, but it shouldn't be - just look at the ingenious way the Coens tie their entire plot together and foreshadow almost every zany, off-the-wall digression. Observe how cleverly it soaks up its stoner character's confused distractability, taking on the appearance of a random, wandering story even as it moves with expert agility and balance through its cluttered plot. I first saw it drunk, and laughed at what I saw as random, uproarious, but totally insensible comedy. Repeat viewings attuned me to just how thoroughly organized and intelligent it was... not to mention the pitch-perfect timing of the performances and exquisite craftsmanship of the production. A masterpiece.

    I also like Saving Private Ryan a lot and am glad Samuel Wilson went to bat in its favor. It's flawed, perhaps, but it contains one of the most masterful sequences in cinematic history - probably the most visceral experience I've had in a theater. Furthermore, the rest of the story works quite well as an old-fashioned war film, and what's wrong with that exactly? Critics don't seem to hold it against older films - why can't Spielberg work int hat vernacular? Actually, I think the juxtaposition of an old-style stoicism, a classic Hollywood approach to storytelling, a modern visual palatte, and stunningly realistic and upsetting combat footage makes for a fascinating mix. Though the film was highly praised on its release, I think it may actually be UNDERrated now - heck, even the Academy managed to overlook it...

  8. Dave: I think I am losing it. Yesterday I surfed through to Goodfellas, and I saw this post, which I immediately recognized as one I had responded to earlier this week. It turns out that it's your new post. Geez! In any case your choice here is not surprising, and while I must side with John (as i have never warmed to this stoner comedy) I recognize its massive popularity. I see Movie Man is singing its praises here as well. Yes, The Dude is absolutely the center of this work, and I can certainly sympathize with the difficulty in picking a best comedy moment, much as you had with MODERN TIMES. Definitely one of your Hall of Fame essays. Yes, Movie Man, I agree with you on that brilliant opening sequence of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, as even the film's overboard detractors do, and you can count me as a fan of this great war film.

    My Own #1 Film of 1998:

    Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (Chereau; France)


    Celebration (Vinterberg; Denmark)
    The Thin Red Line (Malick; USA)
    After Life (Kore-Eda; Japan)
    The Dreamlife of Angels (Zonca; France)
    Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg; USA)
    Gods and Monsters (Condon; USA)
    Pleasantville (Ross; USA)
    A Bug's Life (Lassetter; Stanton; USA)
    The Legend of 1900 (Tornatore; Italy; USA)
    Conte d'Automne (Rohmer; France)
    Elizabeth (Kapur; USA)
    The Red Violin (Girard; USA)
    The Last Days of Disco (Stillman; USA)
    The Opposite of Sex (Roos; USA)
    Happiness (Solandz; USA)
    Flowers of Shanghai (Hsaio-Hsien; Hong Kong)

  9. Samuel and MovieMan - Finally a little backup on my selection! (LOL) In reality, though, I didn't expect a whole lot of folks to agree with me. I'll agree with both of you in regards to Saving Private Ryan. I have enjoyed since the first time that I watched it, and while I prefer The Thin Red Line by just a bit, I take nothing away from Spielberg's film. I know that some rip it for having some maudlin moments, but Spielberg's intention was to portray things heroically which doesn't bother me at all.

    Sam - I was guessing that this might not be your favorite Coens film. I haven't seen your #1, which reinforces the fact that for some reason the 1990s is the decade where I have seen the fewest non-American/English films. I don't know why that is. I'm also happy to finally see somebody list The Thin Red Line among the nearlies!

  10. Hate to say this, but, yet again, I haven't seen this, though I'd like to, after having enjoyed others by the Coens.
    My favourites from this year are Little Voice (the stage play is being revived, but it's hard to see how anyone will outdo Jane Horrocks, Brenda Blethyn and Michael Caine),
    Pleasantville, Shakespeare in Love and
    The Truman Show. I'm not sure which of these I would put on top... Judy

  11. The movie is so funny one. First time when I saw this film I enjoyed it very much. Acting is one of the most key elements for the success of this film.