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Arts & Culture

Midnight Madness: The Big Lebowski

"The Big Lebowski"
Grammercy
"The Big Lebowski"

The Dude Abides Tonight at the Ken Cinema

Film Review: The Big Lebowski
KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando reviews "The Big Lebowski"

KPBS RADIO FILM REVIEW: The Big Lebowski BY BETH ACCOMANDO AIR DATE: March 5, 1998 HOST INTRO: AFTER WINNING LAST YEAR’S BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY OSCAR FOR ‘FARGO,’ THE COEN BROTHERS NOW TURN TO A COMEDY CALLED ‘THE BIG LEBOWSKI.’ THE FILM INVOLVES BOWLING, KIDNAPPING AND A GUY KNOWN AS THE DUDE. THESE DAYS FILM CRITIC BETH ACCOMANDO HAS THIS REVIEW. MEET MR. LEBOWSKI... CLIP Dude: Hold on, I am not Mr. Lebowski, I am the Dude...or El Dudareno if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. (:18) OKAY FOR BREVITY’S SAKE, LET’S JUST CALL HIM THE DUDE. NOW THE DUDE’S A SIMPLE GUY WHO LIKES TO RELAX BY LISTENING TO AUDIO TAPES OF PAST BOWLING TOURNAMENTS OR HANGING WITH HIS PALS WALTER AND DONNY AT THE LOCAL LANES. BUT THE DUDE’S LAID BACK EXISTENCE COMES TO AN ABRUPT END WHEN A PAIR OF THUGS MISTAKE HIM FOR THE OTHER JEFF LEBOWSKI WHO’S A MILLIONAIRE FROM PASADENA. THE THUGS ROUGH THE DUDE UP AND THEN PEE ON HIS RUG, YOU KNOW, THE ONE THAT TIES THE WHOLE ROOM TOGETHER. ON HIS BUDDY WALTER’S URGING, THE DUDE PAYS A VISIT TO THE OTHER LEBOWSKI AND DEMANDS RESTITUTION FOR THE SOILED CARPET. CLIP Mr. Lebowski: Do you speak English son... a handout. (:26) SO LIKE THE DUDE GETS NOWHERE WITH HIS REQUEST SO HE JUST TAKES ONE OF MR. LEBOWSKI’S RUGS. OF COURSE IT DOESN’T TIE THE WHOLE ROOM TOGETHER LIKE THE OLD ONE BUT ANYWAY THIS ALL LEADS TO THE DUDE GETTING INVOLVED IN A KIDNAPPING, A SWINDLE, A DOUBLE CROSS, A SEXUAL FLING AND A BOWLING TOURNAMENT AGAINST A PEDERAST NAMED JESUS. AND THATÕS JUST THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG. JOEL AND ETHAN COEN CLAIM THAT THEY WANT ‘THE BIG LEBOWSKI’ TO BE A 90’S VERSION OF RAYMOND CHANDLER’S GUMSHOE MYSTERIES. SO THEY SET THEIR FILM IN L.A., HAVE A VOICE OVER NARRATION AND OFFER AN ECCENTRIC ARRAY OF DUPLICITOUS CHARACTERS. BUT THE COENS CANÕT RESIST TWEAKING GENRE EXPECTATIONS. AS A RESULT WE GET A LAID BACK POTHEAD INSTEAD OF A HARD BOILED PRIVATE EYE AND A VOICE OVER TRACK DELIVERED BY A COWBOY FILLED WITH PRAIRIE WISDOM RATHER THAN A CITY SLICKER FULL OF CYNICAL OBSERVATIONS. THE COENS OPEN THE FILM WITH A TUMBLING TUMBLEWEED THAT TAKES US FROM THE DESSERT TO THE HEART OF THE CITY AND FINALLY TO THE BEACH. ITÕS A SEQUENCE THAT SETS THE STAGE FOR THE WAY THE COENS PLAY THE OLD WEST OFF OF THE NEW. IN A SENSE, ‘THE BIG LEBOWSKI’ IS AS MUCH A REGIONAL PORTRAIT AS ‘FARGO’ WAS. JUST AS ‘FARGO’ CAPTURED THE CADENCE, MANNERISMS AND ATTITUDES OF THE COENS’ MIDWEST, ‘THE BIG LEBOWSKI’ CREATES SCENES THAT HILARIOUSLY DEFINE THE QUIRKY DIVERSITY OF L.A. AND ITS INHABITANTS. AND WHILE FARGO’S MARGE KEPT THE WORLD IN CHEERY PERSPECTIVE, ÔTHE BIG LEBOWSKI’SÕ DUDE REMINDS US TO JUST TAKE THINGS EASY. AS WITH ‘RAISING ARIZONA,’ ‘THE BIG LEBOWSKI’ GIVES US A PROTAGONIST WHOSE DOPEY INNOCENCE SEEMS TO BE HIS ONLY PROTECTION FROM THE REAL WORLD. AS THE DUDE, JEFF BRIDGES IS LIKE AN OLDER BUT NOT GROWN UP JEFF SPICOLI. HE’S A LIKABLE STONER WHO HASNÕT CHANGED IN DECADES AND HEÕS LIVING PROOF THAT NOT EVERYONEÕS A SLAVE TO THE PROTESTANT WORK ETHIC. THE AMAZING THING ABOUT THE FILM IS THE DEPTH OF ITS CAST SOME OF WHOM MAKE ONLY CAMEO APPEARANCES. THIS MARVELOUS COEN ENSEMBLE INCLUDES JOHN GOODMAN, STEVE BUSCEMI, JULIANNE MOORE, JOHN TUTURRO AND SAM ELLIOTT. AS WITH ALL THE COENSÕ FILMS, ÔTHE BIG LEBOWSKIÕ IS IMPECCABLY CRAFTED WITH FINE WORK FROM CINEMATOGRAPHER ROGER DEAKINS AND PRODUCTION DESIGNER RICK HENRICHS. ONE OF THE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE FILM IS A DREAM SEQUENCE THAT COMBINES EQUAL PARTS SALVADOR DALI, BUSBY BERKELEY AND BOWLING EROTICA. WAIT A MINUTE IS THAT A CONTRADICTION IN TERMS? PLUS THERE ARE GREAT MOMENTS OF COEN ABSURDITY LIKE A GANG OF GERMAN NIHILISTS WHO TOSS A MARMOT INTO THE DUDEÕS BATH AS A MEANS OF TORTURE. ÔTHE BIG LEBOWSKIÕ IS WONDERFULLY ENTERTAINING BUT IT RUNS OUT OF STEAM IN THE FINAL FEW SCENES. PLUS IT LACKS THE RICHNESS AND IMMACULATE PERFECTION OF ÔFARGO.Õ BUT THEN THE COENS NEVER LIKE TO REPEAT THEMSELVES. AND AS THE DUDE SAYS, APPEARANCES CAN BE DECEIVING. CLIP Dude: This could be a lot more complex uh, uh... it might not be such a simple, you know. THIS IS BETH ACCOMANDO, KPBS RADIO. HOST OUTRO: ‘THE BIG LEBOWSKI’ OPENS TOMORROW AT THE COVE THEATER.

Jeff Bridges may be getting Oscar buzz for his work in "Crazy Heart" (still in theaters) but the role he should have won all the awards for is The Dude in the Coen Brothers' film "The Big Lebowski." But you can catch this classic performance tonight at midnight at the Ken Cinema.

In honor of the midnight screening, here’s my review from 1998 when the film came out.

Meet Mr. Lebowski...

The Dude: “Wait let me explain something to you. I am not Mr. Lebowski. I am the Dude. So that’s what you call me. Or Dudeness or Duder or or El Dudareno if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.”

Okay for brevity’s sake, let’s just call him the Dude (played by Jeff Bridges). Now the Dude’s a simple guy who likes to relax by listening to audio tapes of past bowling tournaments or hanging with his pals Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi) at the local lanes. But the Dude’s laid back existence comes to an abrupt end when a pair of thugs mistake him for the other Jeff Lebowski who’s a millionaire from Pasadena. The thugs rough the dude up and then pee on his rug, you know, the one that ties the whole room together. On his buddy Walter’s urging, the dude pays a visit to the other Lebowski and demands restitution for the soiled carpet.

Mr. Lebowski: “Do you speak English son? I’ll ask you again. Did I urinate on your rug?”

The Dude: “No like I said Woo peed on my rug.”

Mr. Lebowski: I just want to understand this. Every time a rug is urinated upon in this fair city I have to compensate the person?”

The Dude: “Come on man I’m not trying to scam anybody, you know, I’m just…”

Mr. Lebowski: “You’re just looking for a handout.”

So like the Dude gets nowhere with his request so he just takes one of Mr. Lebowski’s rugs. Of course it doesn’t tie the whole room together like the old one but anyway this all leads to the Dude getting involved in a kidnapping, a swindle, a double cross, a sexual fling, and a bowling tournament against a pederast named Jesus. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Joel and Ethan Coen claim that they want “The Big Lebowski” to be a 90’s version of Raymond Chandler’s gumshoe mysteries. So they set their film in LA, have a voiceover narration, and offer an eccentric array of duplicitous characters. But the Coens can’t resist tweaking genre expectations. As a result we get a laid back pothead instead of a hard boiled private eye and a voiceover track delivered by a cowboy (played to perfection by Sam Elliott) filled with prairie wisdom rather than a city slicker full of cynical observations. The Coens open the film with a tumbling tumbleweed that takes us from the dessert to the heart of the city and finally to the beach. It’s a sequence that sets the stage for the way the Coens play the old west off of the new.

In a sense, “The Big Lebowski” is as much a regional portrait as “Fargo” was. Just as “Fargo” captured the cadence, mannerisms and attitudes of the Coens’ midwest, “The Big Lebowski” creates scenes that hilariously define the quirky diversity of LA and its inhabitants. And while “Fargo’s” Marge kept the world in cheery perspective, “The Big Lebowski” Dude reminds us to just take things easy.

As with “Raising Arizona,” “The Big Lebowski” gives us a protagonist whose dopey innocence seems to be his only protection from the real world. As the Dude, Jeff Bridges is like an older but not grown up Jeff Spicoli. He’s a likable stoner who hasn’t changed in decades and he’s living proof that not everyone’s a slave to the Protestant work ethic. The amazing thing about the film is the depth of its cast some of whom make only cameo appearances. This marvelous Coen ensemble includes John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, John Tuturro, and Sam Elliott.

John Tutorro as Jesus in "The Big Lebowski"
Grammercy
John Tutorro as Jesus in "The Big Lebowski"

As with all the Coens’ films, “The Big Lebowski” is impeccably crafted with fine work from cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Rick Henrichs. One of the highlights of the film is a dream sequence that combines equal parts Salvador Dali, Busby Berkeley and bowling erotica. Wait a minute is that a contradiction in terms? Plus there are great moments of Coen absurdity like a gang of German nihilists who toss a marmot into the Dude’s bath as a means of torture.

“The Big Lebowski” is wonderfully entertaining but it runs out of steam in the final few scenes. Plus it lacks the richness and immaculate perfection of “Fargo.” But then the Coens never like to repeat themselves. And as the Dude says, appearances can be deceiving.

The Dude: “This could be a lot more complex uh, uh... It might not be such a simple, you know.

Companion viewing: “Fargo,” “Raising Arizona,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “True Romance”