No 43 – The Big Lebowski
Directors – Joel (and Ethan) Coen
When I was a lad, Nu-Metal was all the rage; and though it tickles me to think of it now (as my musical tastes fall much more in to the twee and lo-fi bracket), at the time I would take great pleasure listening to the big, loud, discordant, screamy people.
‘But how does this fit into a whimsical sweary comedy about identity?’ I hear you ask… Well, when I bought the Coma Kai EP, the first track opened (after a prolonged Peter and the Wolf remix) with Walter’s insane shouting.
“Do you see what happens Larry? Do you SEE what happens Larry? Do. You. SEE what happens when you FUCK a STRANGER in the ASS?”
So those tenuous elements of my fifteen year-old life lead to my first aural dabble with The Big Lebowski.
It was much later before I joined the Coen party.
Essentially, this is a film about mistaken identity and (like so many Coen films – if not all of them) about a bunch of idiots who are massively out of their depth. Whilst the synopsis of the film can be described in one line (blackmailers target the wrong Jeffrey Lebowski – approaching a stoned deadbeat rather than an old millionaire) the film is beautifully rich and layered. There is so much going on and it is portrayed with a wonderful cast playing fabulously odd characters.
That has always been a massive strength of the Coen films – they know how to get a really good cast together, and here they’re really playing to form. The film follows The Dude, Jeff Lebowski – as he gets caught up in a kidnapping that he really doesn’t want to be involved with.
He is brilliant and what is great is how his laid back groovy attitude shrinks away throughout the film – after all you can only stay so peaceful and relaxed for so long whilst people are pissing on your rug and dropping marmots on you. However, what is really interesting is how most of his stress stems from his friend Walter, played by John Goodman at the best I can remember him since The Flintstones (which – through the cloudy mists of nostalgia, and since I was about ten at the time – I quite liked), who is an angry, blustering fool of a man – and such a prick! He not only annoys me incessantly throughout the film, but he is the integral antagonist for events, messing up any attempts The Dude has to rectify his situation.
Of course, as the film progresses, we realise that everyone is being double and triple crossed and that actually Walter’s actions are not as inflammatory as we first assumed... but still he is a fool.
And there are so many instances of him flying off the handle and becoming really rather scary in his uncontrolled rage, that he could come out of it as almost a villain. However, this is where the script really shines – because, subtly, through occasional asides, you realise that Walter is a man with a lot of hurt inside him; a man who’s wife left him and who is clearly struggling to recover from the loss. A man who probably (though it is never expressly stated) drove his wife away. A man who has a lot of self-loathing and rage bubbling inside him.
It is just a shame that Donny, the final character in The Dude’s bowling trio, gets the brunt of the aggression, as he is the sanest person on that team. I love Steve Buscemi, I think he is a fabulous fabulous actor – however the fact that he is all skinny and bulgy eyed means that he often gets cast in weird kooky roles. Though I really do like it when he's just playing the timid, nebbish, normal man. His quiet awkwardness and his insecurity make his the performance which shines throughout Ghost World, and it is the same here. He may have very little to do in this film, but every time he appears it is an absolute joy.
In fact he's normally only there for the scenes which take place in the bowling alley. There are however a few of those, as the only two things which currently occupy The Dude’s time are the strange events he has gotten entangled with and the local bowling tournament (though this gradually becomes less of a priority).
Before we go back to the kidnapping and the double crossing (which makes up most of the film) I need to talk about one element of the bowling scenes, as it provides us with one of the greatest tiny roles in films.
Jesus… The sleazy bastard (and possible paedophile) in the most ridiculous bowling set up ever. From the very second he appears on screen he is destined to be a cult hero. This has as much to do with John Turturro’s amazing performance (it is always wonderful to see an actor really get into it and steal a scene with only two lines) as it does with the fact that he is scored with one of the greatest cover versions I have ever heard.
Hotel California by the Gypsy Kings. Really, go and check it out. It will make you smile. It is Spanish flair and twiddly guitars and hand clapping. It is marvellous.
Jesus’ appearance may be the best moment in the film, but it shows the Coen’s care in their characters, as every small role is brilliantly handled and wonderfully cast. We have the titular Big Lebowski; old, crippled, bitter and proud in his wonderful mansion, spouting utter rubbish and at one point even going into seclusion in the West Wing (incidentally, this is my aspiration in life – to have a West Wing in which I can be secluded… and also to be able to tell guests that they are free to go anywhere in the castle, except the West Wing as it is forbidden – and then if they go there I can tell them that they deliberately disobeyed me. And smash stuff up).
We then have Brad, Lebowski’s assistant, showcasing Phillip Seymour Hoffman at his sweaty, nervous, giggling best. He is very good at being nervous. Well, he is just very good full stop. Look in particular at how he crumbles into awkward nerves when The Dude meets Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid, who may not be the best actress in the world but she can certainly play sexual) who then offers to blow him for $1,000.
But this wonderful casting carries on – and there are just too many brilliant characters for me to sit down and describe them. Likewise there are too many plot strands for me to try and explain exactly what happens in the film. What is amazing is that it never feels overwhelming, and even though the Coen brothers add layer after layer of deceit and layer after layer of characters (see Maude Lebowski or the ridiculously fake-accented nihilistic German electro-rockers Autobahn), the film stays easy to follow and The Dude stays the pivotal central point. The main hub of the story.
I also like the easy, natural charm of the film. The story is preposterous but the humour is charming and genuine. It all feels grounded in reality, no matter how preposterous it all ends, but there are wonderful little moments where that reality is shattered.
Some of them are subtle – oh so subtle. Like Sam Elliot, playing a mysterious cowboy (of course) with a marvellous ‘tasche who not only narrates the film but speaks directly to us, the audience, and breaks the fourth wall.
Some of them are not subtle at all. And I love the fact that every time The Dude is knocked out by goons, we enter a little fantasy world.
I think the best place to end this blog is with a video…..
Enjoy one of The Dude’s fantasies: Gutterballs…