East Bay View (a blog about several things)

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Canonball #991: The Big Lebowski

USA, 1998
Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi
Written by Ethan and Joel Coen
Directed by Joel Coen

One way for a comedy to achieve cult status is through a countercultural or ridiculous premise: Rocky Horror, Harold and Maude, the works of John Waters. Another is through visual oddity or trippiness: Repo Man, Brazil, the funnier works of Tim Burton. All of the works just named have some of both qualities, but perhaps none has such an excess of both as The Big Lebowski. So maybe it isn't so surprising that thousands of its fans will turn up to conventions dressed as German nihilists or severed toes. Not surprising, but still weird.

So there's this guy known as the Dude whose name is Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) who's mistaken for this other guy called Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston) who hires the Bridges Lebowski to deliver the ransom for his kidnapped trophy wife, while the heavies who accosted the Bridges Lebowski steal the rug the Bridges Lebowski took from the Huddleston Lebowski when he went to tell the Huddleston Lebowski that he'd been mistaken for... but you see where this is going. There are two candy-coloured dream sequences, one where the aforementioned rug is used as a magic carpet, the other conflating sex with bowling, building on earlier faux-erotic slo-mos of the torpid athletes in action.

Most cult comedies use bad taste to attack the idea of good taste; here bad taste is used for the sake of bad taste. Instead of "isn't this trash fun?", it's "isn't this trash hilarious?" -- a fine distinction that nevertheless makes the Coens' work problematic for many. The Dude gets kicked out of a taxi for dissing "Peaceful Easy Feeling", but the Coens set his dream of sidespinning between the parted legs of a lane of chorus girls to Kenny Rogers. High art doesn't fare better, what with Julianne Moore swinging around naked, splattering paint like birdshit. It might seem that the Coens are as nihilistic as those Germans, but then they put Captain Beefheart on soundtrack, and you don't that unless you believe the distinction between cool and uncool is worth making. The Coens love to laugh at lameness, but they also love to love weirdness.

Dressed like the last great summer of '72 never ended, Bridges plays the Dude with a slouch and a whine. He's no nihilist, he just can't put up much of a fight anymore, yet even in his incapability he's a hero. During the moments when his determination gets the better of his lethargy, a decency radiates through his self-involvement, inasmuch as he wishes no harm to anyone. And hey, getting to live like a slob and bowl all you want is an achievement. As long as you don't think it's enough.


  • At 10:23 PM, Anonymous Todd said…

    The dude abides.

    I have never seen anybody analize the movie so much!

    It also made White Russians popular.

  • At 10:41 PM, Blogger Charlie Chan said…

    I was thinking about using the White Russian to segue into the Arsenal review, but I went for the lame football joke instead.


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