In most cases, reviewing a movie is like reviewing an action: the filmmakers attempt to achieve something, and that attempt has some effect on the audience. At some point, though, a film can become so firmly etched into the culture that it becomes like an object: it can’t be reviewed in conventional terms because it doesn’t act upon you, it just exists. (Or, as the case may be, abides.)
If Fargo is the Coen Brothers’ best film, The Big Lebowski (1998) may be their most successful. It’s taken on a life of its own; in the Twin Cities alone, there are multiple Lebowski-themed public events each year. The film is not necessarily more than the sum of its parts, but somehow it’s something other than that sum. Joel Coen + Ethan Coen + Jeff Bridges + John Goodman + Julianne Moore + Bob Dylan don’t equal The Big Lebowski, except that apparently they do. The entire film is exactly like its central character: it’s not bad, but nor is it particularly awesome. Some aspects of it are appealing, some are kind of distasteful. Still, it’s pretty amusing and weirdly compelling. The Big Lebowski has a laconic feeling that’s all but unknown elsewhere in the Coen catalog: even in the elaborate fantasy scenes, it’s as though they’re trying really hard not to try.
The story is strictly B-movie, both in its subject matter (kidnapping, mistaken identity, goofy ethnic villains, bowling) and its loose plotting. Antihero Jeffrey Lebowski (a shambling Bridges) rolls from scene to scene like a lumpy, lukewarm spud in a lazy game of hot potato, caught among multiple pissed-off parties all of whom want a million dollars that may or may not be in a silver briefcase but none of whom have a very clear idea of what the rest are up to and all of whom use “the Dude,” as Lebowski prefers to be called, for their own ends. He kind of gets it, and he doesn’t appreciate it, but as long as he’s clutching a white Russian, he’s not apt to make much of a fuss about any of it.
Leaping to the Dude’s aid are his bowling buddies: Walter (Goodman), a Vietnam vet with firm ideas about how things are to be done, and the beleaguered Donny (Steve Buscemi). Goodman is consistently the funniest member of the Coens’ stable, maybe because he does the best job of pretending he doesn’t know how clever his lines are. John Turturro and Philip Seymour Hoffman also show up, making more than the most out of supporting roles as, respectively, a trash-talking bowler and a slavish personal assistant. Moore is less compelling as an avant-garde artist, but the first two seconds she’s on screen—naked, swinging in a harness, and splattering paint—may be the two most indelible of her career.
The Big Lebowski will be screening at the Walker Art Center on October 16 and 17, and if you haven’t seen it, you need to—at least once. You may walk out of the theater thinking that once was enough, but just wait: next time you’re flipping channels and you run into it playing, you’ll find yourself watching it again all the way to the end. It’s the kind of movie that just makes you want to abide.
Jay Gabler (email@example.com, Twitter @ArtsOrbit) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
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