Tag Archives: Joel Coen

The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski posterWhere does one start with the Coen Brothers take on neo-noir, The Big Lebowski?

Since its release it has often been hailed as a classic (though I’m sure it has its share of naysayers) and has become one of the most quotable films in recent memory. I’ve seen it a good number of times and sat down to rewatch it again recently on something of a whim.

This whim was spawned by a fact that struck me, part way through, as being a bit odd – that despite the fact the plot deals with kidnap, murder and conspiracy it does so in a way that feels cosy, friendly and warm in something of a generic about face.

The story is a rambling one, reminiscent of many classic noir stories, where a young lady is kidnapped, a ransom demanded and a pay off set up that goes wrong as new aspects come to light and the mystery deepens. Where the Coens throw in their twist though is that rather than having a detached, cool, calm and collected private detective in the lead they have… The Dude (Jeff Bridges).

The Dude (“His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing”) is an ageing hippy type who enjoys the simple things in life like bowling, White Russians and Credence Clearwater Revival and it is his presence as the often befuddled core of all the goings on that I think creates the surprisingly homely feel.

The Dude (Jeff Bridges) - The Big Lebowski

The Dude (Jeff Bridges)

Added to this is the fact that, regardless of your social position, The Dude is almost universally relatable.

He is a guy that just wants to get on with his life and is wondering why someone has soiled his rug, someone wants to use him to conceive a child and someone else has roped him into being a go between in a ransom case – while his best friend (John Goodman’s excellent crazed Jewish convert Vietnam vet, Walter) is threatening people with a gun over bowling scores and confusing the mystery plot even further.

What really makes this is a performance from Bridges that is so spot on its hard to separate him from the role as he casually meanders his way through the movie.

Even though it does reach more of a neat conclusion than one might expect The Big Lebowski retains the feel of a rambling, shaggy dog story, that has a ring of truth within a sense of near surrealism.

Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi and John Goodman - The Big Lebowski

The Dude (Bridges), Donnie (Buscemi) and Walter (Goodman)

This is aided by a couple of dream sequences that perfectly fit The Dude’s demeanour and work as almost stand alone moments, the most impressive of which is the second that ties the whole film together in a suggestive musical number to the song Just Dropped In by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition.

The setting of the film also adds to the sense of surreal-realism as this is North Hollywood in the early 1990s.

North Hollywood itself, the less glamorous side to LA, is a location that lends itself to the uniquely odd mix of the real world rubbing shoulders with Hollywood just over the hills and the famed pornography industry of the San Fernando Valley as well as the high end residential area of Beverly Hills and so, in many ways, is a reflection of The Dude and his situation.

While the Dude is certainly our hero the film is rounded off by a very strong cast of supporting characters.

Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore

The Dude and Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) mid dream Sequence

From The Dude’s bowling buddies Walter and Donnie (Steve Buscemi), the titular Lebowski’s assistant, Brandt (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the eccentric artist Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), ‘The Jesus’ (John Turturro) to the excellent Sam Elliott as The Stranger, our narrator, while also being present in the world of the film (possibly).

All of these help create the world of The Dude, a world he and we are sucked into and spat out from across the film and, as is a Coen Brothers trait, they are an excellent ensemble cast of regular players.

While this all sounds a little confusing the Coens wrangle it expertly into a movie that becomes at once as good as one would expect it to be and somehow even better, all while twisting cinematic convention from noir to period in a way unlike anything to come before or since.

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Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis posterOnce again, with Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers have produced a movie that creates more an over arching sense of mood that gets lodged in the viewer’s head and leaves them wondering if they missed something than a traditional Hollywood narrative film.

This is a feeling I’ve had from all the Coen Brothers’ movies I’ve seen (well the good one, lets just forget Intolerable Cruelty shall we) and while it is certainly frustrating, something about the way in which they do this keeps me going back for more, and yes I am one of those people who loves The Big Lebowski, I just find it hard to quite work out why sometimes.

With Inside Llewyn Davis what we have is something two-fold.

First is the outward story, what there is of it. Set in the folk scene of New York’s “Village” in the early 1960s we meet Llewyn Davis (a rough composite of several real life performers including Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott) as he tries to ‘reboot’ his career following the death of his performing partner and falls on hard times in the process as he jumps from couch to couch (and sometimes floor) of his friends and acquaintances.

Llewyn Davis and Ullesys

Llewyn Davis and Ullesys

In the midst of this is a brief trip to Chicago, with a great cameo from Coens regular John Goodman. This sequence evokes something of Kerouac’s On The Road, far better than the actual film adaptation seemed to manage, before we wind up back in a New York coffee-house with Davis back on stage followed by what looks very much like a young Mr. Zimmerman.

Davis’ personal story amongst this doesn’t actually go very far (despite the regular couch hopping and mid-west jaunt) and this is where the other side of the film comes in and is presented very interestingly by the Coen’s both through the use of a clever little cyclical trick and the contrast of a cat.

Coen Brothers on set

Coen Brothers on set

In this we get something of a comment on the life of a struggling artist, and one that is surprisingly bleak and seems a bit odd coming from such a successful pair as the Coens. Davis, essentially, is shown to be a stubborn man sticking to his view of the world, and thus artistic vision, with no awareness of the problems it is causing him and at no point even seeming to try to do anything to help himself change this.

Taking it to an even bleaker level is that this message could be translated to a broader scope and be added to the comments from the likes of The King Blues (amongst many others across history) that all life is for ‘the masses’ is to work a dead-end job simply to survive and, if you don’t do something about it, it’s just going to keep on like that.

John Goodman as Roland Turner

John Goodman as Roland Turner

That all sounds a bit bleak and miserable though and, while that is certainly part of Inside Llewyn Davis, it is not everything. Laced through the film is a comic strain that is typical to the Coens’ movies so, while there is much talk of death and abortion, the scenes involving Davis and the cat are generally highly amusing and Goodman’s turn as an aging jazz-er is comical – in a dark kind of way.

Along with this are the performances which are wall to wall excellent. Oscar Isaac is onscreen for almost the entire duration of the movie and his performance of Llewyn Davis is a genuine, understated tour de force as he performs the music as well as the acting with aplomb and entirely inhabits the character in a way not often seen in mainstream American cinema.

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis

All of the other performances are similarly involved and, besides Goodman (who is very good in a different way), everyone makes the absolute most of their part even if they aren’t always very well-developed. I was left with the impression that the lack of development is because what we are really seeing is Davis’ impression of all the other characters rather than their actual fully rounded personalities.

Inside Llewyn Davis continues The Coen Brothers’ trend for making good but strangely frustrating films that sit with the viewer long after the movie has finished, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, like with Fargo and The Big Lebowski, this is a film that draws me back time and again, and certainly I’m going to be seeking out the soundtrack soon too.

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