Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steven Buscemi, David Huddleston, John Turturro, Tara Reid, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Elliott, David Thewliss
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
MPAA Rating: R for pervasive strong language, drug content, sexuality and brief violence
Running Time: 98
Date: 02/14/1998

The Big Lebowski (1998)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Dude Abides

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Joel and Ethan Coen had perhaps their biggest task ahead of them, to follow up Fargo, the most popular and critically acclaimed movie of their career, which topped critics' lists and earned them an Oscar. Fortunately, the Coens did what they do best. They ignored it all and just made another great Coen brothers movie.

Even if you've seen all of Joel and Ethan Coen's movies to date, you still don't know what to expect from them. Their imaginations seem limitless. I walked into their seventh movie, The Big Lebowski, wondering if it would either be as great as Fargo, or as misguided as The Hudsucker Proxy. I was prepared for both, but I was not prepared for what I got.

The Big Lebowski is a mystery story, which is rooted in Raymond Chandler, but it stops at those roots. Our hero isn't a smart tough guy. He's Jeff Lebowski, (played by Jeff Bridges) otherwise known as the Dude. He's a laid-back hippie who bowls and still calls everyone "man." Our narrator calls him one of the laziest men alive. The action starts when two thugs break into Dude's house, mistakenly thinking he's a millionaire named Jeff Lebowski (otherwise known as the Big Lebowski, played by David Huddleston from the title role in Santa Claus: The Movie). One of the thugs urinates on Dude's favorite rug. So he goes to the Big Lebowski's house to get a new one.

From there, things twist and turn, and Dude finds himself as the liaison in a kidnapping case in which the victim is the Big Lebowski's trophy wife, Bunny (Tara Reid). Dude is assisted by his bowling buddy Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) who screws everything up. Where Dude is a pacifist, Walter is a Vietnam vet who constantly draws connections between the present day and the jungles of that war-torn country. Steve Buscemi is their other bowling buddy, Donny, who can't hold his attention on anything but his bowling ball. Julianne Moore plays the sultry Maude Lebowski (daughter of the Big Lebowski) who is straight out of Chandler, but tweaked for a Coen brothers movie.

Like Fargo, The Big Lebowski is a perfect mix of comedy and crime movie. Unlike Miller's Crossing, the story is easy to follow. And like both movies, you have no idea what to expect in any given scene. Our imaginations are alive and jumping, trying to anticipate what's next. In one scene, Dude is knocked unconscious and we are privy to his wild nightmare hallucinations, which include lots of bowling imagery. Later, he is slipped a mickey by a porn producer (don't ask) and his dream world doubles in scope, actually topping the first dream sequence with the use of Busby Berkeley-type dance numbers.

The Coens love their goofy characters. Sometimes you feel like they're making fun of them, and you don't know whether or not to believe in them. The reason Fargo was so great is that we got past that, thanks to great performances by Frances McDormand and William H. Macy. The Big Lebowski relies on the Coen company of stock players, Goodman, Buscemi, Peter Stormare, etc., so they feel more comfortable and go crazy. The Coens need to throw in a couple of moments of lucidity, where we can see the characters' souls for just a second. That moment comes in The Big Lebowski, in the very last scene, but I found myself wishing it had come earlier.

That's a minor quibble. This is a terrific movie. "Imagination" is the key word here. You don't see many movies where the makers dare to dream of wild stuff and pull it off. I had a lot of fun, laughed, and got involved. It's nice work.

Note: this review, originally written in 1998, has been upgraded to four stars (for obvious reasons).

DVD Details: This film has become a major cult classic in the years since 1998, and it definitely improves with subsequent viewings. Universal's DVD comes with both widescreen and pan-and-scan versions, so be sure to select the widescreen option. Other extras include cast & crew biographies, an interview with the Coen brothers, the teaser trailer, and optional Spanish and French subtitles.

DVD Details: In 2005, Focus Features (Universal) released a new Collector's Edition of the film. It features the same 24-minute making-of featurette from the first disc, but this time the pan-and-scan option is eliminated. There's a jokey introduction from a "film preservationist, not unlike the new intro for Blood Simple. Also included are the production notes, and -- best of all -- an onscreen collection of Jeff Bridges' beautiful on-set photographs. Bridges shoots a collection of photographs on each film he makes and gives books to the cast and crew upon wrapping. These photos are rarely made available to the public, and they're absolutely worth seeing. In 2011, Universal released a Blu-Ray edition.

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