Big Lebowski: Coens take on the lazy man’s burden

Jeff Lebowski, aka The Dude, is having a very hard time relaxing. His sty of an apartment is raided by two mobsters in search of repayment for a loan that he knows nothing about. Realizing that The Dude is not the Lebowski they want, they pee on his rug, call him a slob, and leave him completely dazed, his head soaked in milk and toilet water. And this is where our relationship with Dude begins: he is lost, and so are we.

The Dude is a perfect response to the Desert Storm-era nineties: a burnt-out-way-over-the-hill-post-Gen-Xer, an avid seeker of comfort. When his rug, indispensable to the flow of his pathetically dilapidated (yet comfortable, always comfortable) abode, is ruined, he feels it his duty as an extreme lounger to contact the real man, The Big Lebowski. Before The Dude knows it, he is caught up in a complex, unstable, and altogether ludicrous web of mistaken identity, kidnapping, pornography, German nihilism, minor amputation, and, of course, bowling–all set to a slick Los Angeles skyline.

A detailed plot summary would be completely useless for a review of The Big Lebowski. The screenplay, a painstaking effort in absurdity by Joel and Ethan Coen, is, like the Oscar-winning screenplay for their unlikely 1996 hit Fargo, absolutely saturated with detail which tells the viewer both very much and very little about its characters. Dude and his friends Walter and Donny all seem very familiar, yet little is known of their lives before the botched kidnapping of Bunny, The Big Lebowski’s sexy, flirtatious prize-wife. Walter, played by Coen Brothers regular John Goodman, is a divorced Vietnam vet who likes to bowl. Donny, subtly portrayed by Steve Buscemi, another Coen favorite, is stupid…and he also likes to bowl.

But it is a story, and not history, that the Coen Brothers are after. This is why they have placed their two most recent movies in such laughably lackluster time periods: the end of the Reagan administration for Fargo and the end of the Bush administration for The Big Lebowski. It is as if they are in on a big, snobby joke, laughing at us for even living through those times with a straight face. We must leave the baggage of historical context at the door and pay close attention to the film’s present. All we can rely on is the fact that the dialogue will take us to the credits.

As a follow-up to Fargo, The Big Lebowski is an amazing success. The Coen Brothers do not make the mistake Quentin Tarantino did with Jackie Brown, becoming too self-conscious, too aware of maintaining a reverence for the masters of old while staying relentlessly hip and ground-breaking (although this film’s partial namesake does seem to be Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, another dizzyingly entertaining mystery). They take their time to construct this movie. In fact, in construction, it is a much more thorough film than Fargo, which is appropriate, considering its story is so much more colorful–a neon, polished-wood response to Fargo’s barren Minnesota hopelessness. Each scene soaks into the other, flowing with an effortlessness wonderfully realized by cinematographer Roger Deakins.

The cast is huge and peerless, and they all require mention. Jeff Bridges, as The Dude, is an expert at portraying strained cluelessness. He reacts so harshly, yet with such a relaxed, California tone, that we can never be sure exactly how mad he is. He is often placed with Goodman, whose Walter is an oversized, overexcited fanatic, constantly