I’ve never been a huge fan of Jeff Bridges, but I loved him in The Big Lebowski. The part of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski was reportedly written specifically with Bridges in mind, and the fit is perfect.
The Dude is an unemployed denizen of Los Angeles, a hippie slob on a bowling team with a soft spot for white russians. He’s enjoying a leisurely soak in the tub when two thugs break into his apartment demanding to be paid for the money his wife owes. After much pleading he convinces them they have the wrong guy, but not before they urinate on his rug.
The Dude assumes that these “collection agents” were after another Jeff Lebowski, a famous millionaire who also lives in L.A. so he goes to meet his namesake to ask for enough money to replace his rug.
The millionaire refuses, but calls him back when he discovers his wife has been kidnaped. He wants The Dude to act as go-between for the kidnapers. Dude and his friend Walter (John Goodman) take on the task, and get caught in an intricate web of kidnapers, millionaires, high schooners, nihilists, artists, pornographers, thugs, and league bowlers.
Comedy is perhaps the most subjective of genres, so take my recommendation as you will: for me, The Big Lebowski is very funny. It is an incredibly successful comedy, the ratio of laughs to intended jokes much higher than in most films. Not only are the two leads (Bridges and Goodman) funny separately and together, but each supporting character is a refreshing comic figure.
All the characters end up as the butt of jokes, but the jokes are always deserved and never contrived. Each person may be a comic caricature, but there is always a respectful self-acceptance that lets us laugh at these people without condescension. The characters are firmly established, and they never change their behavior for a quick, cheap laugh. It’s not what they do that’s funny, it’s who they are, which is why the acting is so important, and so successful, in this movie.
Worth mentioning are John Turturro as Jesus (that’s JEE-zus, not hay-SOOS), the greaser bowler who’s in a lusty marriage with the game; Julianne Moore as the post-post-feminist artist whose work has been described as “vaginal;” Steve Buscemi as the eager tagalong bowler who is constantly rebuked and ignored by teammates Dude and Walter; and Sam Elliott as the rambling, long-winded narrator.
Aside from the performances, what makes all the characters funny and interesting is the astute dialogue. People lose trains of thought, they interrupt, they boast, they repeat themselves, they repeat their friends... they sound natural. Taken with Fargo, the Coen Brothers’ last film, it is evidence that the brothers are observant listeners and gifted writers.
Ethan Coen is not just good at directing actors, he’s also good at technical directing. He and cinematographer Roger Deakins created a beautiful world on film. Perhaps “beautiful” is the wrong word; nihilists, carpet-pissers and thugs are not objects of beauty. But the bowling photography and a series of viking/bowling fantasy dream sequences are lovingly photographed, as though The Dude himself were in charge of immortalizing them on film.
All around, The Big Lebowski is great, solid comedy. Outstanding acting, writing, direction and photography all combine to make this a great comic success.