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The Big Lebowski
1998 - R - 117 Mins.
Director: Joel Coen
Producer: Ethan Coen
Written By: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore
Review by: John Ulmer
   
If you were a fan of "Fargo," you might just like "The Big Lebowski," a bizarre comedy whose hero (if that is the appropriate word) is played by Jeff Bridges as a spaced-out junkie who lives in Los Angeles, unemployed, with a trashy apartment and few belongings. His name is Lebowski, but he is known by his friends as The Dude, and he prefers that moniker rather than his birth name.

Every evening Dude goes bowling with his best buddies, Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi). Walter is a Vietnam veteran, and in his perception, all incidents relate to the war. "What does the Vietnam War have to do with anything?" Dude asks him at a fragile moment in both their lives. Instead of disputing, Walter gives him a big bear hug.

The story begins with a humorous and self-aware voice-over by the narrator, played by Sam Elliot in a few recurring cameos. He informs us that Dude's adventure started on an eventful night not very long ago, when a duo of criminals broke into his house in search of The Big Lebowski, a local millionaire who happens to share Dude's last name. After dunking Dude's face into a toilet bowl and realizing that they've attacked the incorrect individual, the pair of idiots urinate on Dude's rug and flee the apartment.

Dude figures that the only man truly responsible for the incident is Lebowski himself, so he makes a trip out to his mansion and is informed by Lebowski's assistant (portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman with the perfect amount of nervousness) that Lebowski's wife has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. Suspecting that she is in the custody of the two men who attacked Dude, Lebowski offers the slacker a chance to be the courier of his ransom fee. "Her life is in your hands," Lebowski tells him. He promises him some cash to transport a briefcase containing the money, and Lebowski agrees to help him out.

Unfortunately, the kidnappers never receive their ransom, and Dude's car is stolen, along with Lebowski's money. It just so happens that Lebowski's unfaithful wife owed some money to a trio of German nihilists, as well as an adult filmmaker and an assortment of other odd creatures, and now Lebowski is being targeted for the cash. Everyone seems to think that the briefcase is in his possession, and he is threatened that he will lose his "Johnson" unless it is returned. Fearing for his life (and more importantly, his Johnson) Dude takes comfort in Walter, who tracks down the 15-year-old teenager who stole the car and the briefcase and has apparently bought a sports car with a small portion of the briefcase's contents. "See this Tommy? This is what happens when you mess with a stranger!" Walter yells at the boy as he single-handedly demolishes the sports car. We all anticipate the obvious punch line far ahead of time, but the result is nevertheless extremely funny.

My favorite Coen Brothers movie is "Fargo," perhaps the start of their darkly bizarre comedies. "The Big Lebowski" deals with familiar issues--kidnapping, murder, ransom, stupid criminals--but comes across quite fresh, if only because of the distinctly different array of offbeat characters that seem to enjoy divulging into their bizarre sides for the audience.

Dude, who has to be one of the most irreverent heroes of all time, is a likable lead character because he essentially does nothing we disapprove of in front of us. It is insinuated that he smokes pot, drinks and drives, and so on and so forth, but he's also funny and blunt and manages to disguise his more undesirable traits as minor flaws in character. The Dude is the manifestation of many of our own inner personas that are never unleashed. He says what he wants, does what he wants (which usually means nothing whatsoever), and just generally likes to breeze through life with no worries. Hakuna Matata is a good summary of his lifestyle.

The Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel, are extremely gifted filmmakers. They burst onto screens across the nation in 1984 with their indie classic "Blood Simple," which starred Frances McDormand and Dan Hedaya, the former of whom would later star in "Fargo" as the bumbling police officer Marge Gunderson.

As usual, the Coens fall back on their quirky characters for comic relief and enjoyable antics, particularly Buscemi, who is one of the best character actors in Hollywood, and who also manages to be funny in whichever role he chooses - despite having to say anything funny at all. In "Fargo" he was the blundering kidnapper, Carl, and in "The Big Lebowski," he lets his hair part across his head and hang low across his face, completely changing his entire pattern of speech. He's the goofy little squirt who tags along with Dude and Walter, and manages to repeat everything they say and ask questions about discussions long after they have ended. "You're like a child who has wandered into the middle of a movie and wants to know what's going on!" Walter tells him. "What's your point, Walter?" he asks. But it's the innocent nature of his tone that leads us to like him, and it's Walter's crazy antics that makes us feel attached to him, and it's The Dude's trademark humor that makes us enjoy watching him. The Coens have succeeded at making a great comedy with characters that actually have their own characteristics.

But it is the Coens' eloquent use of proverbial language that is really what elevates the film above all else. The script is wonderful and witty. This has some of the best dialogue I have ever heard, ranking up there with "Pulp Fiction" and the work of Elmore Leonard. Walter's rants consume much of the dialogue, which I think is fine.

"The Big Lebowski" is a movie with considerably large structural flaws and weaknesses. But yet the film seems to know this, letting the audience in on the secret during the introductory voice-over narration. "Aw, I've lost my train of thought," we're told, as The Stranger mumbles on about the movie's plot. And towards the end, we're all told by The Stranger that he sincerely hopes we enjoyed the story, even if it's nothing special. Yup, that about sums it all up. "The Big Lebowski" is a movie with a lot of joy, wit, and wicked humor: three reasons you've got to see one of the most enjoyable films of the past decade.
 
Movie Guru Rating
An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant. An important film.  A substantive artistic achievement.  Resonant.
  4.5 out of 5 stars

 
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