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With The Big Lebowski, Joel and Ethan Coen are riffing on Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. The similarities are striking and helpful in figuring out what's going on in this movie: both The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski start off with a visit to a crippled/ill millionaire and then become a search for the truth behind a blackmailing/kidnapping effort. The titles themselves, however, indicate the differences you'll find: in one, you get the gravity of "the big sleep" and in the other you get a nonsensical phrase, "the big Lebowski."
In common with The Big Sleep, whose plot even Chandler himself couldn't completely explain, the emphasis in The Big Lebowski is upon characterization and style rather than events. As in the character of the Dude (Jeff Bridges), a sublimely laid-back character (who just might be "the laziest man alive"), the movie is too laid-back to ever completely commit itself to a plot. The story itself is irretrievably tangled and nonsensical. But that's by design because style itself is the message.
In Fargo, the Coen Brothers by necessity scaled back on style in order to create a realistic story, but in The Big Lebowski, the Coen Brothers give us a story steeped in style--part kitsch and part high art. We get slow motion shots of bowling pins scattering, we get an artist splattering paint on a canvas while soaring through the air on ropes and pulleys, and we get a Wagnerian Valkyrie rolling strikes through the legs of dancing beauties who spin Busby Berkeley-inspired geometric patterns.
The movie soars from one episode to the next thanks to the presence of the Dude as he attempts to extricate himself from a particularly nasty situation. Unlike detective Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, the Dude is willing to give up at any time. In fact he wouldn't have become involved in the events at all if not for his friend and bowling buddy Walter (John Goodman), a Vietnam veteran who constantly urges the Dude to take action. (Steve Buscemi rounds out their bowling team as an ex-surfer just barely tolerated by Walter. "Forget it, Donny. You're out of your element," yells Walter when Donny tries to enter the conversation.)
The story itself gets off to a start when a pair of creeps waylay the Dude as he enters his own apartment and insist on knowing "Where's the money?" Before the Dude can convince them that they've got the wrong guy, one of the strong arm men pisses on the Dude's rug. The Dude is understandably bummed out about the rug, and he tells Walter about it. Walter insists that he should go see the other Lebowski and ask him to pay for the rug: "He has the wealth, uh, the resources obviously," says Walter, "and there is no reason, no FUCKING reason, why his wife should go out and owe money and they pee on your rug. Am I wrong?"
The Dude finds the other Jeffrey Lebowski is a self-made millionaire who made it to the top in spite of his handicap (he's confined to a wheelchair) and who finds sloth--especially as personified by the Dude--to be morally reprehensible. So needless to say, the Dude doesn't get any handouts from the other Lebowski. He returns home and he's ready to give up on the rug, but he gets sucked back in. Mr. Lebowski's wife, Bunny (a beach bunny, porn star 30-40 years younger than her husband), has been kidnapped ("Bummer," says the Dude) and now Lebowski wants the Dude to act as courier once they receive instructions for the ransom payment.
"He suspects that the culprits might be the very people who, uh, soiled your rug," says Lebowski's aide, "and you're in a unique position to confirm or, uh, disconfirm that suspicion."
"So he thinks it's the carpet pissers, huh?" says the Dude.
And thus the Dude is caught in a situation that involves pornographers/nihilists who wear black leather suits and sport yard-long sabers. Thanks to the persistent assistance of Walter, the Dude begins to sort out the truth behind the bizarre situation.
Bowling itself doesn't figure into the plot significantly. We don't witness any bowling tournaments, and the much ballyhooed confrontation between the team led by Jesus (John Turturro), an outrageous bowler who gyrates his pelvis as if he's a love god, and the Walter/Dude/Donny team never happens. However, bowling plays a crucial role in this movie as a kind of zen-like therapy for Walter and Dude. In a world that otherwise seems to elude and frustrate them, Walter and Dude are extremely comfortable at the bowling alley, where the goals are straightforward.
As the movie weaves back and forth between the kidnapping/detective story and the bowling alley, The Big Lebowski steadfastly refuses to take a conventional approach to storytelling. It becomes a series of journeys across a mythical but mundane landscape of sloth, ignorance, and greed. Many of the sights and sounds are sure to stick with you for long after you've seen the movie, such as when a marmot gets dropped into the Dude's bathtub while the Dude's soaking and when Julianne Moore, decked out in Valkyrie gear, dances with the Dude in one of his whacked out dreams. But at the same time, the individual scenes never pull together into a cohesive whole. The movie's narrator "The Stranger" (Sam Elliott) promises to tell us a whopping good tale. But outside of the Dude's dreams, the movie never becomes particularly outlandish. It's certainly not a tall tale. Instead, the movie sort of stumbles (in a pot smoker's daze) from one scene to the next, just close enough to reality (outside of the Dude's dreams) to make it all believable. And maybe that's the problem: it spite of its stylistic conceits, The Big Lebowski seldom becomes surprising. For example, when Walter takes a crowbar to the windshield of a Corvette, the results are completely predictable. We've seen the same scene in countless other movies.
The Big Lebowski contains some great individual scenes; however, to use a bowling metaphor, the movie feels sort of like a 7-10 split.
[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]