Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Big Lebowski

OK, there is sometimes no predicting anything and sometimes, stuff just simply happens.

That is probably the best way to describe the strange journey of The Big Lebowski as it progressed from a quick box office death in 1998 to its current status as a modern cult classic. Quirky and unpredictable, The Big Lebowski moves about with a strangely focused sense of rambling narrative order. Along the way, the movie succeeds in turning bowling into a central metaphor for life and reminds us all that a good rug is hard to find (and keep).

The plot of The Big Lebowski is the shaggiest shaggy dog story ever conceived, playing like a lost tale by Raymond Chandler as re-written by Hunter S. Thompson on a whimsical day. Beginning with the Dude (Jeff Bridges finally discovering his perfect persona as the coolest loser in all of LA) being mistaken by thugs for the other Lebowski (the rich guy with the same name), the movie quickly discovers its major motif when the nitwit knee-breakers demonstrate just how pissed off they are by ruining Dude's rug (the one that ties both the room and movie all together).

Convinced by his bowling mates (John Goodman and Steve Buscemi) that the rich Lebowski owes him for a new rug, the Dude sets off on a quest that runs lazy circles around missing wives, rich pornographers, German Nihilists, and some of the more bizarre moments of male behavior traits.

Which may explain the original hostility this movie encountered from critics in 1998. Mostly, American film critics are pretty much a white male club of geeky guys who spend more time cloistered in dark rooms than even mushrooms. By in large, they hated this film. On the other hand, the film picked up a noticeable female following, despite being anything but a "chick flick."

When I finally saw the film (in 1999), I realized that the movie was sort of mocking an odd collection of distinctly innate male behavior patterns. My own reaction was something along the line of "OK, so is this, like, you know, a problem?" That is probably the real secret of the film's success. Somewhere, some how, it is directly hitting at a subconscious world that is extremely masculine and completely half-nutty. Sort of a man's man movie that isn't exactly for the average guy even while locating itself in a manly world minus all of the self-justifying heroic stuff.

Instead, we have the Dude who stumbles through a messy life by staying focused on his rug and the ever elusive prospect of the upcoming bowling championship, both of which are threatened by his pal Walter's (Goodman) sense of rigid rules, unfocused temper, and destructive sense of helpfulness. The movie kind of functions as an anti-buddy-buddy film and the Dude and Walter seems united primarily by their mutual need to defeat the Jesus (John Turturro) at the final game that never exactly happens.

Along the way, The Big Lebowski unloads enough Freudian symbols to send Freud himself running out of the theater (I never knew that bowling was so erotic). It also keeps peppering the tale with weird references to the Gulf War and David Huddleston, as the rich Lebowski, delivers a hoot of a parody of Dick Cheney.

It's a modern classic, kind of. It may even be one of the finest films yet made by the Coen brothers. It can take several viewings before you even get a clue as to what is going on.

And just remember one of the most important things we learn: "This is not Vietnam. There are rules in bowling."