The Big Lebowski at 20: One of the funniest and strangest comedies we have ever seen
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When Fargo was released in 1996, it shone a light on two brothers who up until then had operated on the surrealist fringes of Hollywood. Joel and Ethan Coen made an intelligent, empowering and slick crime drama that caught the world’s attention and saw accolade after accolade come their way. Their response, as Empire’s Ian Nathan puts it, was to “laugh in the face of populism” and churn out a “peculiar, original and unstintingly inventive” comedy masterstroke called The Big Lebowski.
The Coens, having had really their first moment in the limelight (they have of course had many since), retreated back into their corner of zany tricks and bizarre humour to later emerge victorious once again. The Big Lebowski is arguably the best movie that the Coen Brothers have made, and certainly one of the funniest comedies to ever grace the silver screen. It is achingly hilarious, endlessly intriguing and a joy to experience. Even those who have seen the film dozens of time rub their hands with glee at the prospect of spending another 117 minutes of their life marvelling at the unashamedly deadbeat Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski – better known simply as The Dude.
The Dude represents something of an anomaly for Jeff Bridges, and yet it is perhaps the greatest of all his roles. Compared to his more recent roles in Crazy Heart (2009), True Grit (2010) and Hell or High Water (2016), The Dude is very different. He somehow manages to be both full of infectious character and also chronically lacking in it. This is a man with no job and seemingly no ambition; yet the very absence of anything concrete, any kind of deep character for audiences and critics alike to pick apart like hyenas, is also what makes him such a legend. The Dude is above petty deconstructions, a tour de force of nothing and nobody who gets dragged into a world of self-defining somebodies. It is this contrast with everyone around him that makes him so silently fascinating and provides some incredible comedy material.
Silent is not the way to describe The Dude’s friend Walter Sobchak, a lesson in shouting and anger from John Goodman which has went down in history as one of comedy’s most volatile performances. Goodman’s Vietnam War veteran is a psychologically troubled ex-husband who can’t let go of his past. He is brash, endlessly cruel to his more humble friend Donny (a quietly excellent Steve Buscemi) and back breakingly funny. Despite Walter’s frustrations, it is also clear that Goodman is having the time of his life in the film, later confirming that this is his favourite film that he appears in.
Apart from delivering some of the film’s funniest moments (him taking a crowbar to a sports car will leave you in tears), Walter also forms part of the puzzle that is The Big Lebowski’s message. It’s a hard film to think through, but there is definitely something there about the impact of America’s foreign policy and romantic idioms of what the USA once looked like. There are several references to the political situation of the time - Walter getting angry at another player crossing the lane line during bowling mirrors Iraq's border crossing into Kuwait, an act that triggered the Gulf War. That war is noted throughout, although its almost always so subtle that you barely notice it through all of the gags and bizzare action sequences. It is typical Coen Brothers material; intelligent without being brash, relevant without being preachy, and funny without being superficial.
Visually, this is the trippiest and best looking experience that director Joel has ever delivered. The first dream sequence with The Dude flying through the air, and the mini cam placed inside a bowling ball, is amazing enough. Then later there is this unexplainable, unbelievable porn parody set in a space bowling alley where Saddam Hussein gives you your bowling shoes. All played out to ‘Just Dropped In’ by Kenny Rogers, a psychedelic music wonder oozing with style that warns the listener about the dangers of LSD… relevant since The Dude has his drink spiked. Even the dull scenes in the bowling alley have a vivid richness embedded in the bright colours. This is a pitch perfect, lurid style has cemented The Big Lebowski’s place in history.
Remember that, however the comedy genre may seemingly lose its edge, no matter how many more mediocre Will Ferrell family films infect Hollywood and as comedy faces a difficult contest with political correctness, you can count on one person. A person that effortlessly makes you smile and leaves you watching in wonder as the Coens show off exactly why they are masters of their craft. A rock we can depend on as other famed directors and other stars fall from grace. The Dude is a legend. The Dude abides, and we can all take some comfort from that.
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