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.
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.
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.
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.