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The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen) 1998   

    One of the best comedies of the nineties, and the best film thus far from the Coen Brothers, The Big Lebowski has been criminally underrated, it seems. A lot of this probably stems from the fact that it is so different in tone than Fargo (Lebowski was the first Coen film to be released after it), which had been the biggest commercial and critical success for the Coens up to that point. Despite its gory murders and whatnot, Fargo had a terrific performance by Frances McDormand that made the audience feel warmer and fuzzier than Lebowski ever does. Lebowski has an even better lead performance than Fargo did, but it doesn’t reach out like McDormand’s. Jeff Bridges’ Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski is a stunningly funny comic creation, but only if you can key into it. Playing what should be a one-joke role, Bridges imbues the Dude with so much character that his laziness isn’t just a habit, but instead becomes a full-fledged ethos (as opposed to nihilism).    

    The Dude’s existential state of mind is one that doesn’t question so much as reacts, and when he does react it’s usually with a fluster of profanity and repetition of what he’s heard before. Essentially stuck in the 70’s, the Dude’s attempts to bolster his sense of authority are hilarious because when he attempts to talk to people on a level they’ll understand he simply rattles off some muddled sound bites.  The film, which is set in the early nineties just before the Gulf War, presents a distorted freak-show version of LA that lends credence to the Dude’s decision to stay as is. To cast him as a Chandler-esque detective is wholly inappropriate, and that it doesn’t work as a compelling mystery is half of the point. Even the narrator loses his train of thought here as he forgets exactly what he was working up to. The (rather nihilistic) point, which also acts as justification of the Dude’s behavior, is that everything is pointless, especially in this film’s setting, which surely fits the absurdist comedic slant of the film.    

    Thankfully, since the film sacrifices all else (including emotional content, profundity, and narrative logic) for the laugh, it’s downright hilarious. Once you stop looking for the big answers here, and start accepting the small pleasures that the film offers up, nearly everything feels like a masterstroke. Surely, Jesus, the Hispanic pedophile bowler, is funny the first time through, but equally oddball, if not so loud about it, is his partner Liam, who inspires chuckles because of the association of his ordinariness with such flamboyance. Every performance from the cast is perfectly modulated here, making thinly written, but somehow fully conceived, characters come wildly alive. The Coens themselves are able to flex a bit more muscle than usual, creating a never-ending series of daft images and situations. Perhaps, it’s the dogged lack of profundity that makes the film so much more fun to me than their other works but The Big Lebowski might be the one Coen film where their distancing irony and snarky condescension toward their characters doesn’t bother me at all. They create a slightly altered reality here that seems wholly worthy of being taken with a grain of salt.

**** Masterpiece


Jeremy Heilman