The Big Lebowski (1998)

2014 #4
Joel Coen | 112 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English | 18 / R

I was going to post this review today anyway, but let’s nonetheless take it as a moment to acknowledge Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has a memorable supporting role here. He was an exceptional talent, gone before his time.

The Big LebowskiI confess, I’ve never really got on with the Coen brothers. I liked Fargo well enough, but I didn’t ‘get’ The Man Who Wasn’t There (in fairness, I was young and need to revisit it), felt Burn After Reading was aimlessly daft, and find No Country for Old Men to be a vastly overrated self-conscious bore, of which even the thought of re-watching to re-assess makes me groan. The Big Lebowski, however, is good fun.

In a plot that clearly and repeatedly references film noir, Jeff Bridges is everyman Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, who is attacked in his own home when mistaken by Bad Men for Jeffrey Lebowski, rich businessman. The Dude visits his namesake seeking recompense, and ends up suckered into a kidnap and ransom plot that takes in so many wild asides and diversions there’s no point explaining them all here — that is the film.

Known for all its cult — and, to an extent, broader critical — popularity, there now seems to be quite a backlash against The Big Lebowski online, based on the comments boards of various websites. There’s a newfound consensus that it’s overrated, a meandering and unamusing nothing of a film. The DudeI don’t wholly agree, though I didn’t unabashedly love the film as some do. It’s perhaps a bit “of its time” now, and getting a little “you had to be there”; coming to it almost two decades later, it exemplifies a ’90s American mainstream/independent-borderline filmmaking sensibility; the kind of bracket the early works of Tarantino might also fall into, for instance.

So while it’s true that it does meander a bit, and has a certain relaxed manner that isn’t going to be for everyone, I think that’s a valid stylistic choice rather than a filmmaking error. It’s perhaps a film to relax with, to laze even, rather than one to expect to grip you and hold your attention tight for two hours. I also think that another common accusation — saying it’s no more than “a stoner movie for stoners” — is unfair. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised how little of that kind of humour or content there was — it’s barely featured, never discussed, and the characters don’t seem defined by it. In fact, if I didn’t know that’s what people accuse it of being, I might even have missed it completely. (That’s not my kind of thing, so I’m not looking for it, but nor do I easily write it off.)

The other dudeIf one did want to look into Lebowski more deeply, the most interesting facet is that noir one. It’s quite lightly of that genre — very much an updating and re-appropriation of certain tropes, rather than a straight-up example of where the modern version(s) of the genre is (are… or were). It feels like the Coens were consciously putting a present-day(-then) character through the paces of a traditional noir plot. Whether that was the deliberate structural conceit or just a side effect of making a noir pastiche, I couldn’t say.

It would seem the cult of Lebowski is fading with time, increasingly limited to those who saw it at the right time or worship anything by the brothers Coen. But to write it off entirely is also a shame, because there is much to enjoy even for those who don’t partake in certain recreational substances.

4 out of 5

The Big Lebowski was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.

1 thought on “The Big Lebowski (1998)

  1. Haven’t seen this in years. Really must get around to it again someday. Didn’t realise that it was falling out of favour with people, always thought it a film that would get only better with age, as its got such a great cast some of whom had amazing careers since. This and Boogie Nights would make a sensational double bill one Saturday night.


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