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Why It Works: The Big Lebowski

08.07.2015

Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.

****SPOILERS AHEAD****

"Way out west there was this fella... fella I wanna tell ya about. Fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski."

If you're a reader of this site, there's a decent chance you've seen THE BIG LEBOWSKI a handful of times... unless the first time was in a room full of giggling dudes who had already seen it a bunch, because then you were probably just trying to figure out what the hell was so funny. From the subtle humor to the overly complicated plot to the sheer irreverence of the whole thing, this film could have easily plummeted into the annals of obscurity, but the Coen brothers once again prove their mastery and deliver an instant classic. Here's why it works:

WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:

"Sometimes there's a man- I won't say a hero, 'cause what's a hero?"

Right off the bat, as the Stranger describes the Dude as lazy, we see our bathrobe-clad protagonist writing a check for a carton of milk, so we have a pretty good idea of what we're in for. Screenwriting 101 says your character has to propel the plot, though, so how does that apply here? Fortunately, much like the inactive lead in Hal Ashby's BEING THERE, the Dude is thrust into the world of rug pissers and nihilists right at the onset of the film, so we never really see him being lazy. What we do get see is how a careless stoner makes for a hilariously unlikely noir hero. There's also an insanely charming quality to the Dude, due in no small part to Jeff Bridges' flawless performance, of course, but also due to the apathetic innocence of the character. The Dude isn't necessarily good or bad, but he lacks any real self-importance, agenda, or ego, which is both fun and refreshing to watch.

Come on, Time, make this happen.

Don't think for a second we're not going to discuss the rest of this wonderful cast. Another trick to keeping an unconventional movie from falling flat is to keep the interesting characters coming, which THE BIG LEBOWSKI absolutely nails. Where the Dude maintains a fairly ambivalent persona for most of the film, Donny and Walter serve as the angel and devil on his shoulders, with Donny displaying nothing but fresh-faced innocence and Walter talking the Dude into one terrible idea after another (and finding a reason to be pissed off about everything in the process). Every character in this film is unique and perfectly cast, from larger supporting roles like Maude, Brandt, and the Big Lebowski all the way down to characters with a few lines: the Dude's landlord, the cops, Knox Harrington the video artist... and, of course, nobody f*cks with the Jesus.

One of the many perfect performances this genius left behind.

WHY WE CARE:

"Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear, well, he eats you."

Okay, technically the Dude has a goal- he wants his rug back- but it's a plot point we forget about pretty quickly. It's no accident that every other scene throws a new wrench into the works- the Coen brothers are having fun with us. In a spoof of THE BIG SLEEP and other noir films of the era, the boys eschew the rules of filmmaking and purposefully deliver a convoluted plot with turns around every corner. Granted, if you're able to follow the plot, the mystery of the kidnapped Bunny and all the players involved is intriguing, but no one can be expected to keep up with the story the first time around. What the Coens do to soften the blow here is brilliant: while every other scene introduces a new character, every other scene focuses on our favorite trio at the bowling alley. All of the soiled rug, nude painting, cable guy porn, toe ransom madness is intercut with three guys arguing about fouls, Pomeranians (it's a Yorkie, Walter), and shomer Shabbos. I was going to include a list of scenes here to illustrate this point until I realized new characters continue to be introduced all the way into the beginning of the third act, when Jon Polito's brother Seamus reveals new information about Bunny... which, of course, is completely irrelevant.

"Eight-year-olds, Dude."

WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:

"I can die with a smile on my face without feeling like the good lord gypped me."

So, how do you tie together a story with a meandering plot and no real objectives? Well, you don't. Bunny was never kidnapped, the dude doesn't get his rug back, Donny dies, and many of the characters and plot points introduced go absolutely nowhere. Like Spike Jonze & Charlie Kaufman's ADAPTATION, the structure of the movie itself is one big joke. If nothing else, we at least have a release of tension- the mess the Dude got himself into is finally over. The Stranger also delivers a "there you have it" monologue in which he nods to the comedy and silliness of it all. As with many of the Coen brothers' non-endings, some people will contemplate the deeper meaning behind the plot, analyzing every line and picking apart anything they can (does "takin' her easy for all us sinners" mean the Dude is supposed to be Jesus? Who is the Jesus supposed to be then?!)... while some people will appreciate that, sometimes, it's just fun to be ridiculous.

"Sam Elliot would actually ask us, 'what am I doing in this movie?' We didn't have anything to tell Sam- we didn't know either." - Ethan Coen

WHY WE REMEMBER:

"Well, that about does her; wraps her all up."

The Coen brothers call THE BIG LEBOWSKI a "bowling noir," one of my professors in college called it a modern Western, and others call it a stoner comedy, a buddy film, or just "that movie where John Goodman is a colossal asshole." The movie checks so many boxes while still feeling like a consistent, unique experience, while the Coens' directing and Roger Deakins' cinematography keep it from looking like just another 90's comedy. The casting is impeccable, the story is a beautifully crafted mess, and there are even a couple dream sequences in case the rest isn't enough. Ultimately, though, it's the writing that makes this film so damn memorable. THE BIG LEBOWSKI is easily one of the most quotable movies of all time, largely because the quotes themselves are funny, but also because the dialogue is on a level with a David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin in how sharp and meticulous it is. The clip below is a perfect example. Every interrupted line, every stumble, and every "f*ck" is crafted with care. Check it out, and tell me you don't see the genius in the writing and get a chuckle from even the most unexpected moment. You can even- aw, look at me; I'm ramblin' again. Well, I hope you folks enjoyed yourselves. Catch ya further on down the trail.

Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!

If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at brianbitner@joblo.com.

Source: JoBlo.com

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