Director Deep Dive: The Big Lebowski

Director Deep Dive is a chronological look into a director’s filmography to see how they and their works grow and change.

As directors, the Coens have a history of being very detailed with their films. They often arrive to set with scenes completely story-boarded and very little room for improvisation from actors. This level of control lends their movies a distinctive vision that extends from the camera to the surrounding environment while allowing viewers to follow along with their often dense stories. That the duo used this method to create one of the greatest examples of the hang-out movie is another feather in their cap.

The Big Lebowski follows Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), known to everyone as The Dude. Dude shares a name with a millionaire whose wife owes money to a porn kingpin, a fact he learns when two thugs break into his home, one of them peeing on his valued rug. Inspired by his bowling partner and Vietnam vet, Walter Sobchek (John Goodman), Dude pays a visit to the Big Lebowski (David Huddleston) and becomes embroiled in a complex kidnapping plot. From there, the movie checks in with this story while filling the margins with eccentric characters who are diversions or completely unrelated to the narrative. All the while, The Dude attempts to keep his cool even as the mystery gets more and more complex.

The “secret” of the film is that the entire story is ultimately meaningless. The mystery turns out to not be much of one at all. Inspired by the works of Raymond Chandler, the brothers craft a story as hopelessly convoluted only without an actual detective to solve it. One of many great jokes in The Big Lebowski is that The Dude isn’t half bad at being a private eye, but reaches a dead end every time he uses actual detective work. Like many Coen’s protagonists, he’s out of his element.

Written before the duo’s Academy Award-winning Fargo, the screenplay for the Big Lebowski might be as equally memorable. While it has none of the tight pacing or intricate twists and turns, Lebowski is easily the Coen’s funniest work. As a pure joke machine, the movie is one of the very best. Each scene revealing a fresh new oddity for The Dude to wander in on. If Fargo uses dialect for comedic effect, then this film uses the dialogue itself. Literally, as El Duderino frequently parrots phrases he’s heard others around him use with the original meaning lost.

Roger Deakins returns for his fourth collaboration with the Coens and gives the film a realism that helps keep us grounded in the absurdities of the characters. The Dude’s Los Angeles is grimy and a bit out of time. It reflects him just as much as the pristine but hollow Lebowski mansion reflects the supposed millionaire. That timeless quality applies to many of the film’s locales, most notably the bowling alley. The Dude’s refuge is just as out of place as he is. The 60s aesthetic calls back to his heyday and reminds us how much has changed since then.

Where Deakins really gets to shine is in the dream sequences that are the movie’s visual standouts. The most memorable being a Busby Berkeley-inspired dance number set to Kenny Rogers’ “Just Dropped In.” The dreams take on a more stylized look that feels closer to the brother’s previous films and provides us with some fantastic camera work. They work not as examinations of The Dude’s psyche, but as absurdist palette cleansers. The rare movie dream sequences that feel like the actual thing.

As with all their productions, the Coens brought on Carter Burwell to write the original score. The duo knew from the start that they wanted to include several licensed songs and brought on musician and record producer T-Bone Burnett to help with the selection. A collection of well-known and obscure tunes that call back to another era. The soundtrack is full of earworms that add to the film’s endless appeal.

More than any of their other works, The Big Lebowski hinges on the performances of its two leads. The Coens wrote The Dude and Walter with Jeff Bridges and John Goodman in mind, and I can’t imagine anyone else in the roles. Bridges essentially plays himself as Dude, but also conveys the constant confusion swirling in his head. On the opposite side, Goodman plays Walter as a confidently stupid man who never quite realizes how much of a joke he is. The two have an Odd Couple-esque dynamic that makes all of their scenes a comedic delight. The zen-like hippie and the rage-filled war vet. These two relics from an age gone by who remain the same even as everything around them changes.

The Coens’ fondness for character actors pays dividends here as the cast is full of the type of eccentrics the duo loves to write. Julianne Moore is the best of the bunch as Maude Lebowski, the daughter of our millionaire and an artist. Maude is self-serious and posh in a way that suggests she is putting up a front, but like many of the characters, this is just who she is. Steve Buscemi returns for his 4th collaboration with the brothers as the dimwitted Donny. He’s always one step behind on the plot and never gets to finish a sentence, yet remains loveable. The rest of the cast includes the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Thewlis, John Turturro, Jon Polito, Peter Stormare and, of course, Sam Elliott. As our narrator, Elliott imbues the story with a western flair that is unexpected but wholly welcome. Most of these characters are bit players and yet all of them have a moment I remember fondly. A testament to the craft put into writing them and the actors themselves.

The Big Lebowski debuted to a modest box office and mixed reviews from critics, many of whom saw it as slight compared to Fargo. They weren’t completely wrong. The film is slight compared to the towering achievement of their previous work. However, Lebowski has a charm that keeps you coming back. There is something oddly comforting about its strange characters and their peculiar, ultimately pointless, journey. That charm paid off in the long run. Today, the picture is the very definition of a cult classic. It has inspired its own film festival and even a religion based on The Dude’s lifestyle. Through word-of-mouth and many airings on cable, the movie has become one of the Coens’ lasting achievements.

Admittedly, I’m biased in all of this. The Big Lebowski is one of my all-time favorites and while I recognize it isn’t their greatest work, it is the Coens film I find the most re-watchable. It’s shambling and comes dangerously close to just being a series of oddball sketches, but somehow it all connects in a way that is delightful and just a little audacious. In the end, nothing better signifies the Coen brothers than following up on your biggest success with something completely different.

Next Time: The Coens give the Odyssey a southern twist with the loopy fun of O Brother, Where Art Thou.

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