Many films have had an enormous impact on the world, the biggest being Star Wars. Others include, Pulp Fiction, The Lion King, Frozen etc. One film that most will have heard of also made a big impact, or least, it has in the past 10 years. The Big Lebowski is one of the all-time great cult movies; not many people went to see it, but over the years, it has become a staple of many peoples ‘must watch’ lists and after seeing it twice now, I think I finally understand why.
Today, the Big Lebowski has its own festival in Kentucky, USA and even has a religion named after the protagonist, ‘Dudeism’. Joel and Ethan Coen have made something that people all over the world relish, and that’s because it seemed to break the conventional boundaries of modern storytelling. The core story is set in Los Angeles where Jeff Lebowski, aka “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges) is wrongly assaulted and mistaken for a high profile Lebowski (David Huddleston), whose wife owes money to everyone around town. Soon, the Dude learns she has been kidnapped and Lebowski orders him to exchange ransom money for her. Soon, the Dude and his bowling buddies Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi) finds themselves in a whole mess of trouble. It seems to be a bit mad in its setup, but that is the point. With very unconventional dialogue, drug trips and some of the most memorable characters in Coen Brothers history, the Big Lebowski manages to merge style and drama together with the same level of sophistication as a Quentin Tarantino film. Interestingly enough, the F word in this film is said more times than in Scarface.
As always though, the Coen Brothers films have always had the same charm and wit that has been with them for the best part of 30 years. The direction in this film is mixture of quick and also very slow movement of the scene and how the characters behave on screen; you could almost compare it to a strange dream where time has been tampered with. But this has been the genius of the Coen Brothers; the way they direct a film always tends to reflect the time and the mood of the characters so that the story and characters always connect in the best possible way.
In this, everything connects really well and the acting is the best of any Coen Brothers film, second only to No Country for Old Men. Jeff Bridges abandons his seriousness and dramatic talent for a more relaxed and comical approach and you know what? It is comedy gold, no wonder there is a religion named after his character. Performances from John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and Julianne Moore are the most memorable for their careers and with talent like this, performing these roles, it makes you wonder, why shouldn’t all of Hollywood do it?
The characters in this film are just one part of why this is such a memorable experience, the other part is the dreams, or drug trips. This tiny film, made great use of practical effects to explain the deepest thoughts and fondest desires of the Dude, mostly bowling and women. It doesn’t use a huge amount of effects, but the use of light, old school effects and the sheer number of people in them, means that they are more vivid than anything that can be created on a computer. CGI was only used for a shot involving the thumbhole of a bowling ball, apart from that, this practical style, I just adore, and that is saying something from someone who has grown up in the digital age of cinema and the decay of the still brilliant practical celluloid film.
Evidence of a cult film is everywhere, including the sound design, because it is fairly minimal. LA traffic, nineties gunshot effects, the echoing sounds of the bowling alley and the ever present sounds of people struggling and the violence that Walter will inevitably bring upon the world. In fact, the use of echoes in this film can be found in just about every scene. Distant gang violence, glass breaking, traffic, all the sounds that make LA, LA. With this, and with the more twisted and warped versions of sound in the dreams, you get the sense that the Coen Brothers are trying to make this world and the characters for more like real life. Mind you, they didn’t have to direct Jeff Bridges that much to make him act, he did most of the work himself and thanks to superb method acting, he was probably high when shooting and not just in character.
Another memorable aspect of this film, is the soundtrack. Carter Burwell returns once again to compose an original score, though that said, I can only identity a few minutes of original content in the soundtrack, and that is only when the mood turns dramatic or violent. As for the rest of the soundtrack, try to imagine all of the radio stations you listen to, go into a broom cupboard and give birth to this. Every genre from, rock, pop, country and western and techno all feature in this and as result, it looks like a disjointed mess. However, it feels right, like watching a B movie; you know it looks bad, but when you watch it, you change your mind. That is what the soundtrack is like.
Surprisingly from a technical stance, the Big Lebowski is a triumph of cult movies. As the relationship between the Dude and Julianne Moore’s character, it doesn’t really go anywhere and the hero factor in this film dies away very quickly. That being said, there is no denying that the Dude is one of the coolest characters in film history, despite his apartment looking like a hell hole. Gray dilapidated walls, clothes everywhere and a rug that really ties the room together. It may all seem like crap, but actually, it is really befitting for a beatnik character. And all the other places like the alley, the diner, the Lebowski household and the movie set all seem like a complete contrast, but they add to his and his buddie’s characters; everything has a common ground.
That common ground is illustrated in the connection of character and production design, but the look and feel of it all, is very different. Collaborator and legend Roger Deakins returned as cinematographer and is responsible for all the wild and slow moving sequences in the dream scenes of the film. He is also responsible for creating different looks in the scenes of the film; the Dude’s apartment is shot with a gritty and dirty look to show the state he is in, while the modern and pristine world is very clean and heavy use of studio lighting. He even shot the majority of night-time scenes with orange-sodium lights, not the usual blue for moonlight to showcase the highly urbanised look of LA.
But the looks of the film don’t stick with the audience, mostly because they don’t notice or couldn’t care, they focus more on the story, and frankly so do I; story is the most important factor of any film. But the looks of the characters will definitely stick with them. The Dude’s very Starsky and Hutch style jacket and his hipster sunglasses is one of the most memorable looks of any character in modern cinema. Then of course you have Walter in his heavy Post-War getup, little Donnie in his smart dress and then the bright purple suit of Jesus (pronounce it if it were Spanish, not the son of God). It all clicks, even though it shouldn’t.
The compulsion to move away from conventional storytelling and filmmaking is the greatest legacy of the Big Lebowski. It is a film with no boundaries and couldn’t even care. If it were a man, it would be the Dude, but completely naked. This freedom is what I love; this will be, a classic of the future.
I give this film a 9.5/10.