The first slacker film noir: The Big Lebowski reviewed in 1998

In our May 1998 issue, we analysed the Coen brothers’ non-sequitur-laden, neo-Chandlerian ramble around grubby ’90s LA.

30 March 2023

By Jonathan Romney

The Big Lebowski (1998)
Sight and Sound

The success of Fargo put to rest a long-held myth about the Coen Brothers: that their films were strictly esoteric or enigmatic. This belief seems to be based partly on the way their earlier films are rich in strands that can’t easily be assimilated into a conventional narrative pattern – the stray hats in Miller’s Crossing, the blatantly formal play of circles in The Hudsucker Proxy – and partly on the frustrating impression that there is always less to the Coens’ work than meets the eye. Every film up until then seemed flawed by the sense that the brothers were being wilfully cavalier, refusing to play their genre games by the rules or, conceivably, just not trying hard enough. Their new film gives some credence to that interpretation: it could almost be subtitled ‘In Praise of Goofing Off’.

The Big Lebowski serves as a reminder that the Coens are nothing more enigmatic than this: the most purely ludic of contemporary American filmmakers. Played entirely for laughs – at the expense of the audience and of the detective genre – the film warns us from the start not to expect any of its narrative threads to lead anywhere. With a title echoing The Big Sleep, we’re in for a Raymond Chandler-style entertainment, a labyrinthine route followed solely for the diversions encountered along the way. The story enables us to enjoy a whole catalogue of narrative dead ends, cruel gags and bravura character routines.

The Coens get the jump on us from the opening sequence: the drawling voice-over by the Stranger, a Will Rogers-like philosopher cowboy, makes us expect a Western; but the tumbleweed we see rolls straight into early 90s LA, an urban wild frontier even more untamed than in Chandler’s day, and consequently demanding a rougher and readier Marlowe. We’re told Jeff Bridges’ superannuated slacker is “the man for his time and place”, and is consequently several degrees of weathered somnolence beyond even Elliott Gould in Robert Altman’s 1973 The Long Goodbye.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Dude is on a doomed, albeit humble, quest from the start – to be paid back for his rug, ruined by debt collectors. But he’s also out to answer the question posed by his millionaire namesake: “What makes a man, Mr Lebowski?” It’s a pointed question in a universe which classifies the Dude as effectively a nonperson – out of step with a culture of cool, malicious surface, in which he’s effectively castrated by the loss of his car.

The Big Lebowski echoes such 70s neo-Chandlerian thrillers as Cutter’s Way and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, which also recycles The Big Sleep’s wayward-nymphet opening premise. Like Penn’s detective hero, the Dude will learn that the deeper you work your way into a labyrinth, the less likely you are to get anywhere. But the Coens actually defuse the paranoid implications of the plot complexities, making sinister machinations look like nothing more than obstacles devised to waste the Dude’s leisure time. Sent in search of the other Lebowski’s missing porn-star wife, the Dude will work his way into a world not so much of evil as of bizarre, misguided pretension En route he encounters Lebowski’s daughter Maude (Julianne Moore), an artist who does her work suspended in mid-air, and the sinister German nihilist Uli (Peter Stormare), whose prime weapon is a live marmot and whose most menacing threat is to “sqvishh” the Dude’s “Johnnsonn”.

The Coens seem also to have extended their crime reading to novels by and about 70s survivors. The hip jokiness suggests Kinky Friedman (The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover, God Bless John Wayne), or the cultivated weariness of the novels of James Crumley (Mexican Tree Duck), in which action is measured not in plot points but in the amount of time spent recovering from benders. The convoluted plot seems designed purely to accommodate its various cameos and acid-inflected nightmare routines, such as a flashy but leaden Busby Berkeley spoof with Julianne Moore as avenging Valkyrie. The range of acting turns is rich, if wayward, with such Coen regulars as Steve Buscemi and John Turturro pointedly reappearing as if to remind us whose film we’re watching.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Best of all, in a memorably unctuous cameo, is Philip Seymour Hoffman from Boogie Nights, the best character-actor find in years. Less plausible are the ludicrous ‘moderns’: Moore’s clipped-voiced practitioner of “vaginal art” (perhaps jibing at her own loopy Dora Maar in Surviving Picasso), a hyper-arch David Thewlis, and Peter Stormare’s hissing heavy. But these characters help to flesh out the Coens’ vigorously unglamorous portrait of LA. The Dude shuttles between the dreary nether regions – a bowling milieu all the drabber for such touches of tawdry flash as Turturro’s purple-lurex lane shark – and the privileged enclaves where everything is phony, where even the dark secrets that once surrounded Chandler’s Stern wood mansion no longer frighten.

Within this world, the Dude – a 70s activist with The Seattle Seven and signatory of the “Port Huron Statement” – functions as a resilient lapsed idealist, the old counter-culture dreams now regarded as period jokes. He is laudable not for his moral integrity as such, but because deep-ingrained inertia makes him impervious to corruption. He’s an aesthetic dissident: honourably out of step with LA zeitgeist, he listens to Captain Beefheart and, in a neat reversal of stereotype, recoils when a black cab driver plays the Eagles.

The casting of Jeff Bridges slyly capitalises on his image as Hollywood’s last good guy, an actor who can convincingly and affably embody nonconformist righteousness. He makes a wonderfully calibrated double act with John Goodman’s irascible Vietnam veteran converted to Judaism (“I don’t roll on Shabbas”) – a perfect character pairing for what looks like prime sitcom material. That might be finally what this is – a Seinfeld-style ‘film about nothing’, or about nothing more than the in-jokes that make the Coens giggle (the Dude, by all accounts, is based on a real-life acquaintance of theirs, one Jeff “the Dude” Dowd, who really was a member of the activist group The Seattle Seven). But then, to make a film this thick with nonsequiturs, this defiantly slight, looks like a heroic act in contemporary US cinema. The Big Lebowski is at once utterly inconsequential and a blow for a cinematic slacker aesthetic. Its moral payoff is that, like Marlowe, the Dude finally stays the same – he doesn’t need to be redeemed, brought into line with the world he inhabits. Likewise, the Coens, flouting the genre rules and gleefully pursuing their own amusement, reserve the right to stay their ineffable, not remotely enigmatic selves.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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