The Big Lebowski

A Disko top 5 movie of all time. Stunning character comedy from the ever-excellent Coen brothers.

Released in 1998, certified UK-18. Reviewed on 27 Jul 2003 by Craig Eastman
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Sometimes the best films are the ones that pay attention to character rather than plotting or action. Two brothers who appreciate this more than most are Ethan and Joel Coen, writing and directing respectively some of the greatest character-driven movies of the last two decades. One thing they excel in is quirky comedy, The Big Lebowski being arguably their greatest achievement in this area to date. In the customary Coen style, the story begins with a simple act spiraling into a bizarre web of deceit, mistaken identity and misunderstanding. Oh, and bowling.

Jeffrey Lebowski AKA The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is a simple man of simple pleasures. A single stoner trapped in a time warp of Summer Of Love sensibilities, his days are spent getting high at his home in an apartment complex and bowling with his friends Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Donnie (Steve Buscemi). So the cycle of his life goes on in uninterrupted loser bliss until the peace is shattered by the arrival of two strangers who one evening trash his home, force his head down the toilet and worst of all micturate on his beloved rug, all whilst insisting he confess the whereabouts of some apparently stolen money.

Eventually realising they have the wrong Lebowski (the one they are after is a married millionaire, and as The Dude so rightfully points out he isn't wearing a gold band and "the f**king toilet seat is up, man!"), the two muscle men leave The Dude to lament his ruined rug. At the insistence of the unbalanced Walter, he decides to chase up the other Jeff Lebowski and seek compensation for the piddled-on Persian.

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The other Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston) is a wealthy wheelchair-bound invalid with a trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) who likes to make porn films, and an obsessive manservant Brandt (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who acts as his go between and has a penchant for reiterating everything his master says. Offering him a replacement rug, Lebowski sends The Dude on his way, making his disdain at his namesake's choice of lifestyle well known while he's at it.

With things seemingly settled, The Dude, Walter and Donnie get back to some serious bowling, only for their content to be shattered once more by Lebowski's unwanted intrusion. It seems Bunny has been kidnapped and held for ransom, possibly by the same people who mistook The Dude for Lebowski and soiled his rug. Charging The Dude with the job of being bag-man, Lebowski hopes the slacker will be able to confirm whether or not the thugs, working for Porn King Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), are the ones responsible for Bunny's disappearance.

Unsurprisingly Walter's 'Nam-obsessed insistence on accompanying The Dude on the drop against instructions throw a spanner in the works, turning the simple exchange into a complete travesty. Throw in the inconvenience of Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) stealing the family heirloom rug The Dude chose as a replacement back, and The Dude's easy-going world is rapidly turned on it's head.

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Working on the usual simple Coen premise (in this instance a little case of mistaken identity), the brothers have woven an increasingly twisted masterclass in character and irreverent comedy. Aided by a uniformly excellent cast, the pin-sharp dialogue created by Ethan meshes with Joel's uniquely easy-going yet focussed directorial style to deliver one of the best and funniest studio pictures released that year, and one of this reviewer's top five favourite films of all time.

In a cast who all deliver more than their money's worth it's John Goodman as the deluded ex-'Nam veteran who shines the brightest, unable to open his mouth without some killer line or another slipping out. From his opening scenes at the bowling lane where we first learn of his imbalance (pulling a loaded gun on a friend who scores an 8 but whom Walter insists was "over the line"), to the final resolution where he manages to cack-handedly ruin the scattering of a friend's ashes in the most embarrassing fashion, Goodman is a tour d? force of comedy genius and easily the film's biggest asset. It's no wonder the brothers have chosen to work with him on several occasions.

The Dude is easily Bridges' best performance in years; the very embodiment of the slacker ethic and a man bumbling drunkenly and stoned through circumstances that seem like a bad trip. Never short of a quick quip himself (when one of Treehorn's goons picks up his bowling ball and asks "what the fuck is this?" he quickly replies "obviously you're not a golfer"), The Dude is effectively the straight man to Walter's unwitting comedy sidekick, and the pairing is pure comic genius.

The supporting cast fit perfectly within the film's quirky framework, and represent some of the most ideal casting I've ever seen in a movie. Picking a mixture of actors, some of whom they have worked with before, and some who are new to the Coen experience, the brothers play to the strengths of each, illuminating their picture with a plethora of inspired turns. Although a minor role, Buscemi is uncannily suited to the character of Donnie, and the always dependable Hoffman excels as the perpetually troubled Brandt.

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The role of eccentric artsy oddball and staunch feminist Maude fits Moore like a glove, being both seductive yet simultaneously threatening, and by Jove does she look good in Viking getup during The Dude's sedative-induced dream sequence. Peter Stormare makes for a pleasantly flawed nihilist who plagues both Lebowski's with ransom demands, cutting off his girlfriend's toe and passing it off as Bunny's, aided by his two suspiciously non-nihilistic colleagues.

The Big Lebowski is only the Coen's second out-and-out comedy, and is arguably more of a laughter piece than Raising Arizona. Despite much of their output having a slightly humorous vein, this is played purely for the laughs and it shows how keen an eye they have for the intrinsically and darkly humorous. There really shouldn't be anything funny about hauling a disabled man out of a wheelchair, but here it's hilarious. Likewise there shouldn't be anything funny about a man pulling a gun on somebody at a bowling lane purely because he let his toe slip over the line. Mind you, as Walter justifiably observes "This is not 'Nam, this is bowling. There are rules".

At it's heart The Big Lebowski is the ultimate buddy movie; and ode to friendship amongst social outcasts who if nothing else have each other. As hilarious as all of the cast's antics may be, there's always a tender undertone and a feeling of just how far these people would go for each other, even if like Walter their efforts are frequently and spectacularly bungled. I guarantee you will not find a funnier film, and I hope that's simple yet sufficient praise for one of the best films of recent memory. The Big Lebowski is that rare kind of film that succeeds on a different level for everyone, and half the fun is in finding a part of it to call your own, be it the delivery of a particularly pertinent quip or the subtle nuance of a performance. There's a hell of a lot more I could gladly tell you about this movie but the real joy is in experiencing it first yourself. Go discover.

Disko has awarded this film 5 out of 5 Disko Pot Units.

Joel Coen
Cast list:
Jeff Bridges (Jeffrey Lebowski AKA The Dude)
John Goodman (Walter Sobchak)
Julliane Moore (Maude Lebowski)
Steve Buscemi (Donnie)
David Huddleston (The Other Jeffrey Lebowski)
Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Brandt)
Ben Gazzara (Jackie Treehorn)
Tara Reid (Bunny Lebowski)