IN THE 1990s, multiplexes were populated with garish comedies full of manic grins (Jim Carrey), sophomoric slapstick (Adam Sandler) and a generous helping of daft unmentionables (‘Biodome’). As the decade wore on, some audiences began to wear down, preferring deadpan depictions of everyday life and wry irony instead of clowning hoopla. The brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, to that point critical if not always popular successes, warmed perfectly to this new taste in cinema: 1998’s ‘The Big Lebowski’ remains an effective snapshot of their transitioning career as well as the decade at large.
The film marks the end of the Coen brothers’ early era, where scripts were trenchant and often dark, cinematography was stylized but candid, and production values were modest. After this film, ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ would begin an uncomfortable ‘adolescence’ of films that couldn’t quite reconcile the brothers’ sardonic outlook with their commercial ambitions. Their production values, scope of the plots, and ideological reach of their pictures grew along with their budget, to mixed results: the pseudo-Homeric ‘O Brother…’ was occasionally splendid and just as often incoherent, while several other major releases (‘Intolerable Cruelty’ and ‘The Ladykillers’) earned lukewarm receptions at best. Since then, the brothers have managed to get back on track, embracing their dark side and finding that audiences do, too. ‘No Country For Old Men’ and ‘True Grit’, two of their latest offerings, have also been their two biggest earners; ‘Burn After Reading’, the deeply sardonic comedy that appeared in between, also showed well and harked back to their grim criminal incompetence days in ‘Fargo’.
The crux of this transition, again, is the faux-noir quest of The Dude, Jeffrey Lebowski, a middle-aged stoner unlucky enough to share a name with a wealthy (?) businessman with a free-loving wife, sociopathic daughter, and numerous debts. In the first of several unsubtle parallels with noir tropes, this elder Lebowski reminds us of the greenhouse-dwelling, life-sapped General Sternwood in ‘The Big Sleep’, except this version has a jester alongside him in Brandt (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), whose unctuous smiles help grease the gears of a dubious premise. The Dude (an unkempt cool Jeff Bridges) handles many of the same curveballs thrown at private dick Philip Marlowe half a decade before, but with none of the moral ambiguity and martyred masculinity of traditional noir. Rather, he displays a much more modern blend of arbitrary materialism and pacific Taoism—that rug that ‘really tied the room together’ is worth great pains, but a random housebreaking and knockout beating don’t seem to trouble him much. His companions are Walter “Am I Wrong?” Sobchak (John Goodman) and Donny “Who Loved Bowling” Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi), two more stable actors for the Coen brothers who project their slightly absurd characters with comfortable completeness: Donny, blithely vacuous but utterly well-intentioned, and Walter, stridently confrontational but utterly well-intentioned (to his friends).
Indeed, virtually every character to be found here is a tongue-in-cheek caricature, from the pitiful German nihilists to the sleaze-minded porn mogul. It all could have been quite farcical, were it shot in a more gratuitous manner or with a more directive music bed. Rather, the Coens’ camera tends to just document instead of direct, seeming to follow actors instead of leading them and regularly giving us candid reverse shots of characters in a wink-wink sort of way. A few lavishly visual clichés are indulged—Brandt drawing back the doors to a firelit sitting room with a flourish and ushering The Dude into his lord’s presence like a seneschal, or The Dude’s soaring and stooping dream sequences. But these are rendered with virtually the same level eye as the rest of the film and end up as natural tangents within this pot-hazed misadventure. If anything pokes out improperly, it was the bookending narration and cameo of Sam Elliott, ‘The Stranger’, who stands in for the directors and makes their wryness all too apparent.
But the point is still worth making, for this film is no mere prelude to ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?’ Instead of digging for laughs by turning adults back into gawking teenagers, ‘The Big Lebowski’ isolates an array of adult habits and exploits them vigorously. Once pushed far enough, each attitude comes full circle into its own sort of absurd childishness, and no character is spared. Mr. Lebowski, the grasping playground bully; his auteur daughter, the haughtily pretending rich girl; and The Dude himself, taking his smokes out behind the bleachers and just “abiding”. And in the end, that doesn’t seem half bad.