ARCHIVE: The Big Lebowski (1998)

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Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is a slacker. He forgoes a suit and job for pyjamas and a marijuana habit, insists that people call him ‘The Dude’ and appears to have a drink problem. Despite all of this, The Dude is the kind of guy you’d like to hang out with. He’s pretty passive, happy to pay for cartons of milk with cheques and he’s wicked at bowling. The one thing that seems to tip him over the edge is when a stranger comes into his house and *ahem* micturates on his favourite (and only) rug.

The Dude, when seeking a replacement for the rug which “really tied the room together”, becomes embroiled in a complicated kidnapping plot. He is aided by fellow bowler Walter, a Vietnam veteran played by John Goodman. Goodman’s performance is so convincing that, as Walter shifts from quietly offering a more politically correct term for “chinaman” to threatening a man with a gun over a game of bowling in a heartbeat, we are not left thinking of this as unusual. Walter’s war-damaged personality is occasionally shown in a more serious light as his actions are interspersed with clips of George H.W. Bush talking about the (original) Gulf War.

The Dude is later confronted, confounded and comforted by the beguiling yet absurdly straightforward Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), a perfect example of the ‘mysterious girl’ which many artists such as Peter Andre have so lusted after physically but more pertinently tried to understand mentally. It is her appearance that marks the development of the film from idiosyncratic, lightweight comedy into a conundrum that we are desperate to get to the bottom of. In keeping with its image as a decidedly cliché-free film – and without giving too much away – there is no ‘going out with a bang’. The film ends in rather an understated manner, one of the few touches that the Coen brothers’ film shares with Pulp Fiction, which was released only four years beforehand.

Nowadays, The Big Lebowski is seen as a cult classic, a hilarious film very well-made with an ice-cool soundtrack and great performances from Bridges and Goodman – but this position is very much revisionist. Upon its release in 1998, The Big Lebowski opened to mixed reviews and performed very poorly at the box office compared to other Coen Brothers films. Fortunately, this film has been saved by DVD purchasers and there is even an annual ‘Lebowski-fest’ in order to celebrate the film.

In short, The Big Lebowski is an excellent film. It so easily, given the main character, could have been a typical ‘stoner comedy’ but fortunately we are spared the patronising, predictable mulch which is synonymous with the genre and instead treated to a more subtle form of humour. Not only that, but the plot is complicated without being impenetrable. The Big Lebowski has been saved by history, and I for one am thankful for that.

The Big Lebowski (1998), directed by Joel Coen, is available now on Blu-ray disc and DVD from Universal Pictures UK, Certificate 18. 

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