By Tony Schwab, Staff Writer
“The Big Lebowski” is, of course, one of the great cult films. It is widely seen in a way that no other Coen Brothers film is, even though it shares much in common with the rest of them. It has a lovable loser as its hero, an elaborate crime plot, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi and a great soundtrack. A number of things have made “Lebowski” the most popular of their movies, some superficial and others not.
The most obvious reason is that “The Dude” is one of the best embodiments of a certain kind of romantic laziness present in American film and television, especially in the 1990’s. Almost as much as Homer Simpson, he fulfills the great dream of devoting all of your time to self-gratification. He upholds this view of life even while everyone around him takes things so seriously. Walter cannot let go of the Vietnam war, Lebowski is a grouch and Maude is a schemer, but the dude just wants to bowl. The movie manages, half mockingly, to make him into a sort of monk.
The movie is also one of many in the 90’s to look at the crime genre in a fundamentally new way. The films of Soderbergh, Tarantino and Fincher, as well as the Coens, took an often repetitive genre and made the plot secondary to character, atmosphere and at times something resembling philosophy. You have to watch the movie several times before the actual story makes sense, and when it does, you realize that it’s a ripoff. This registers not as a letdown, but as a brilliant joke. The Dude’s coolness throughout is vindicated and Lebowski is shown to be a stuffed shirt.
In terms of pure entertainment value there is no better Coens movie. Every scene has the craft of a great, important set piece. The bowling scenes are well observed, with the intensity of local tournaments – funny for the extent to which they are accurate. The smallest roles in the film are as memorable as the large ones, particularly Ben Gazzara as Jackie Treehorn, Sam Elliot as The Stranger and John Turturro as Jesus.
As time goes on it becomes clear how difficult of a movie “Lebowski” was to pull off. Works like “Terriers” and “Inherent Vice” have gone for something similar, but nothing has mixed crime film and slacker comedy in the same way successfully. Those influenced by the film always take the plot with the wrong kind of seriousness. They try to make the characters overcome their flaws and grow up, and make the villains truly evil. What these imitators lack is the ability to build ridiculousness into every frame. Only the Coens can do that.