Friday, November 18, 2016

Re Re Re Revisiting THE BIG LEBOWSKI

L/R: Steve Buscemi, Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, John Tuturro, Sam Eliot

How can you help but revisit The Big Lebowski?  If you’re blessed (or afflicted), with the pseudo vastness of premium cable movie channels, you surely encounter this Coen Brothers film with the regularity of a Gesundheit.  And should you go beyond an entire two weeks without this film assuming control of your Smart TV’s remote – fear not!  It’s been segmented and uploaded to YouTube where you can repeatedly watch the film's penultimate episode; marked by John Goodman chewing–off Peter Stormare’s ear.

The Big Lebowski, like all Coen Brothers creations (and I believe I’ve seen them all), is eminently re-watchable.  Repeated viewings are not only individually rewarding (as well as inevitable), but probably the reason the film has achieved cult status.
The Coens (always sharing directing and writing duties), are quirky creators - sometimes misguidedly so.  But the brothers (even at their darkest, i.e., Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men), are highly inventive and naturally flowing humorists.  Nothing happens in their films by chance.  What may sometimes seem like frivolous filler, is actually organically motivated stuff and foundational to their story telling.

The Big Lebowski: is brilliantly cast and directed - but also driven by deceptively smart character and plot development.

Since their first films in the mid- 1980s, the Coen’s plot-credo has focused on every event – small or large – as somehow an inexorable interconnection between fate and human foibles.  The Coens are Jews from the Midwest, and at their core, seem to have a devotion to some divine spirit that insists (despite best efforts), man is only capable of producing consistent irony and adhering to the law of unintended consequences.


"The Dude" Lebowski, mistaken for a millionaire Lebowski, seeks restitution for his ruined rug and enlists his bowling buddies to help get it. When approached for reimbursement, the “millionaire” instead enlists Dude to recover his kidnapped bride (at least 40 years his junior), and entrusts the dude with a valise full of money for the ransom payoff. 

But the ransom cash is stolen from the back seat of Dude’s (Jeff bridges) car. His closest bowling buddy Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), erroneously determines that the money was stolen by a 12 year old.  

Meanwhile, the crew of kidnappers (the “Nihilists”, actually a Germanic, punk band fronted by a former porno star and friend of the alleged kidnapped wife), have faked the kidnapping and are actually in cahoots with the millionaire Lebowski’s young wife.  But, she becomes bored with the entire scene, and goes back to her millionaire husband who, as it turns out, never provided any ransom cash to “The Dude” in the first place.

In between these events, the Dude’s apartment is inexplicitly trashed once again by the same thugs who first ruined his carpet and who refuse to believe he’s not the older millionaire Lebowski.  Two additional sub-plots include the Big Lebowski’s daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore), who counsels The Dude and ultimately uses him as an unwitting participant in the conception of her child. 

Some will find this plot either unconventionally flat, or then again, off the charts. In retrospect (and considering “The Dude’s” character attributes), the story feels like it’s being shaped under the influence.  Which is about right, as “The Dude”- even in middle age - is the ultimate stoner.  

The plot feels almost Seinfeldian in its diffusing of what should be major plot points. But at the end, there is no kidnapping, no ransom money, no theft of the ransom money – and no bowling tournament, which probably is the most important thing Dude, Walter and Donnie care about. Donnie (Steve Buscemi), a soft and thinly spoken bowling buddy, who essentially demurs and is just along for the ride, suffers a fatal heart attack when he, Dude and Walter are confronted by the three “Nihilists” demanding the nonexistent ransom money -  for the nonexistent kidnap victim settle for pocket money. But who  are then viciously (though comically), dispatched by Walter. Donnie’s understated death scene provides a quiet and contrasting irony compared to the misapplied blunder-bust of every other character.

Characters: The Dude and Walter Sobchak

“The Dude” is several decibels below passive-aggressive and favors most any path of least resistance.  He enjoys not working, frequent pot usage and poceses an uncanny ability to find himself in most any environment capable of supplying White Russians (an amusing running gag, throughout).
Jeff Bridges owns"The Dude" (Almost as much as "The Dude" now owns him).
 But throughout the film, his sole objective is the replacement and repair of his ruined Oriental rug. Everything else is a highly vexing inconvenient impediment to that end.
Underachieving is the Dude’s philosophy of life. He has long ago adopted a “get along-go along” point-of-view.  Even when threatened in the parking lot of his favorite bowling alley, he’s happy to offer the Three Nihilists (alleged kidnappers), four dollars in lieu of a multi-million dollar ransom payday.

Walter, on the other hand is not only all-in, but grossly over-committed. A veteran of Vietnam, his experience and gung-ho patriotism informs every point-of-view and every emotion.  When descending upon the home of a recalcitrant 12-year-old who refuses to confess to stealing the ransom money (which he didn’t), Walter decides the kid has used his ill-gotten gains to buy a flashy, red sports car  parked in front of his parent’s home (which he hasn’t), and impulsively pulverizes the vehicle with a wooden baseball bat. An act of vengeance interrupted by the kid’s next door neighbor who reciprocates by bashing the Dude’s dilapidated wreck of a car.

This scene is preceded by the Dude insisting Walter join him for the kid’s interrogation about the ‘stolen’ ransom money. Walter angrily protests leaving his house as it’s the beginning of Shabbat.

“Hey man, you’re not even Jewish. You’re Polish Catholic, or something”, the Dude annoyingly points out
Walter, remembering his Jewish, ex-wife, is incensed. “Listen, you just don’t stop being something!”

The film’s one big catharsis (at least for Walter), occurs when Walter aggressively defends the Dude, Donnie – and all things American – against the three Nihilists.  The parking lot of their bowling alley as his battlefield, Walter becomes the aggressor, pitching his bowling ball into the chest of one attacker, knocking unconscious another, and biting the ear off the leader.

The Big Lebowski may at first seem convoluted entertainment. But ultimately, it’s a film whose repeated viewing provokes more thoughts – and new laughs.

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