Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Favorites - The Big Lebowski (#46)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. The Big Lebowski (1998/USA/dir. Ethan & Joel Coen) appeared at #46 on my original list.

What it is • Following their Best Picture-nominated Fargo (1996), the Coen brothers made what appeared to be a lark. Chronicling the misadventures of Jeff Lebow...er, the Dude (Jeff Bridges), a Los Angeles layabout who becomes entangled with a kidnapping plot, the film seems to have been fairly well-received. That said, I recall - and re-examining the evidence bears this out - quite a bit of critical bafflement. Not only were the reviews perplexed by the film's gleefully convoluted plot, they were struck by such a trivial follow-up to the most acclaimed work of the Coens' career (the most recent film to land on the AFI's Top 100 in 1998). If the critics were mostly mildly amused, the audience didn't seem particularly engaged at all - the film barely made back its budget. Two years later, the Coens' O Brother Where Art Thou? grossed nearly five times the amount of The Big Lebowski and in 2007 the brothers won the Best Director award that had eluded them for Fargo, this time for the somber, impeccably-executed No Country for Old Man (which, incidentally grossed ten times as much as Lebowski). Overall, they've directed fourteen films in the eighteen years since their little Lebowski floated lazily in and out of theaters, many highly acclaimed and several reaching a wide audience. Hovering just around sixty, they have years of prolific filmmaking ahead. And yet there is a very good chance that this will remain their most beloved film for the foreseeable future, and likely the work they will be most fondly remembered for. Wikipedia sums it up best with the following juxtaposition:
Peter Howell, in his review for the Toronto Star, wrote: "It's hard to believe that this is the work of a team that won an Oscar last year for the original screenplay of Fargo." ... [Howell] more recently stated that "it may just be my favourite Coen Bros. film."
Why I like it •
I first saw The Big Lebowski in 2002, the year its cult began achieving widespread attention. Although I've watched many of the films on this list with friends or family over the years, I tend to think of my favorites as solitary experiences. Lebowski on the hand has always been a social affair. When I was initiated into its universe, I was a bit drunk - I laughed a lot, and appreciated it as a string of hilarious non sequiturs. A year later when I watched it again, and again, and again, until it had become a ritual among my friends, I began to realize that this wasn't just a funny film - it was brilliantly constructed. The Coens had assembled an intricately related series of events, a sprawling web of memorable people and places adding up to a fully realized, coherent big picture; to be honest, the fragments probably add up more tightly here than they do in the various Chandler novels which the Coens are riffing on. And then, in the most brilliant stroke of all, the screenplay sets the dazed Dude as our guide through this meticulous universe, adopting his fascinated, bewildered perspective as our own. We are allowed to wander into strange little tangents, to dwell on hilarious details and to luxuriate in uproarious dialogue, deceptively scattered in delivery yet note-perfect in its symphonic interplay. Humor operates on a different frequency than most qualities which make a film great. I often find it hard to rank a comedy as a "great film" purely in terms of how hard and how often it makes me laugh. Most of the comedies on this list have other aspects to recommend - the poignant characterization of The Gold Rush, the brilliant devices and pastiches of Annie Hall - and The Big Lebowski may be the most aesthetically elevated of them all with its brilliantly-honed screenplay, subtly gorgeous visual design, and emphatic cutting to a memorable soundtrack. At the same time of course, it is also pretty goddamn funny and that never hurts.

More from me • A clip is featured at 6:06 in "Living in the Nineties", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series.

How you can see it • The Big Lebowski is available for digital/rental purchase on YouTube and these sites, and the blu-ray/DVD can be rented from Netflix.

What do you think? • Do you find The Big Lebowski funny or does its humor escape you? Is it your favorite Coen film, and do you consider it the best? What's your favorite scene, character, and line of dialogue?

• • •

Tomorrow: Chinatown (#45)

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