Dir.: Joel & Ethan Cohen; Cast; Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reid, John Turturro; USA 1998, 117 min.
The twentieth anniversary screening of The Big Lebowski reminds us how unique the Cohen Brothers’ features once were, cramming modern classics like Fargo, Barton Fink, Millers Crossing and Blood Simple. into the first twelve years of their prolific output. But in the twenty years gone by since The Big Lebowski, there are just two productions standing out from the crowd: No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man (2009) – and really nothing much in the last decade, although The Ballad of Buster Scruggs looks amazing but it’s more a portmanteau of ideas than a story – and there’s was even a dud in the shape of Hail Caesar!
The Big Lebowski is about three American men who have lost their way after the Vietnam War and are either totally inept and lazy: The Dude Lebowski (Bridges) lies in his bathtub for hours smoking weed with candles burning down; the bitter Walter Sobchak (Goodman), who knows everything better than anyone else, but is really just an incompetent bully, or the timid Theodore ‘Donny’ Kerabatsos who hides a deeply disturbed, childish soul. Being Americans and used to living in permanent denial, they hide their troubled personalities behind what they believe is a funny persona, but it’s really just sad. Their only way to hang on to real life lies is through their obsession with bowling, spending most of their time in the bowling alley, bickering and fighting with anybody who comes along. And Jesus Quintana (Turturro) is one of their adversaries, dressing in a lilac romper suit he’s even more obsessed with bowling than the other three. When some inept small-time gangsters mistake the Dude Lebowski for the millionaire of the same name, and urinate on his carpet (“it holds the rooms together”), The Dude seeks out his namesake (Huddleston), who is wheel-chair bound and dominated by his twenty-something wife Bunny (Reid) and his slightly older daughter Maude (Moore). After stealing an expensive Persian rug under the nose of Lebowski’s assistant Brandt (Hoffman), The Dude is soon visited by the latter, to deliver one million dollars to Bunny’s kidnappers. Clearly no kidnapping has actually taken place, the trio sets out to deliver the money, but fails miserably. Meeting Maude, who is into sexual therapy based on Reich’s theory of the Orgone, is interesting for The Dude, but the narrative passes our heroes by, and leaves them carrying the can – with tragic consequences.
The directors always manage to keep the comical elements true to life – a difficult task, considering that the three would-be-sleuths seem to overlook every clue being thrown at them. Their reduced and totally self-centred personalities leave them open to being exploited by anyone. But they stagger on, always on the outlook for an onslaught from their imagined enemies – which never comes in the way they imagined it will. Living in their world of total seclusion from reality, they create their own downfall – their self-destruction a symptom of their personality disorder. They generate a permanent world of slapstick: much sadder than it is funny, but it fits in with the wider picture of society the Cohens are painting: the self-inflicted trauma of the Vietnam War, never discussed and covered up by every president from Reagan onwards, has ruined the soul of a nation – the three ‘blind mice’ in The Big Lebowski are only the first step towards Trump’s America. The audience might laugh – but the last laugh is on them. AS
photo credit: UNIVERSAL PICTURES