Monday, March 30, 1998

The Big Lebowski

It’s one of the funniest movies of all time. It’s a Zen koan shrouded in a mystery wrapped inside a bowling alley. It’s a Coen Brothers movie, so you're in for surrealistic ride. Roller-coaster thrills aside, the movie is a essentially a character study.

No, no the title character. The other Lebowski.

In his heroic 1960s past, Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) was a member of the Seattle Seven and a co-author of the uncompromised first draft of the Port Huron Statement. In his unheroic 1991 present, he’s a pot-smoking, white-Russian drinking slacker who lives in LA and writes 69¢ checks for milk at Ralph's. He's a Holy Fool who even looks like Jesus — if Jesus went around in a bathrobe and boxer shorts. He bowls in his spare time — which is pretty much all his time. Title character or not, he hates the name on his birth certificate and goes by the handle "Dude."

Unfortunately, the Dude happens to have the same name as a bloated millionaire -- the "Big" Lebowski of the title. The millionaire's barely-legal trophy wife (a spoiled porn star) owes money to a mobbed-up porn king. (aka Jackie Treehorn, played by Ben Gazarra.) He sends thugs to collect from her rich old man, and they barge into the Dude’s shitty apartment by mistake. The thugs realize their error, but not before stuffing the Dude’s head in a toilet and peeing on his rug. (Which really tied the room together.) Folks in the screenwriting dodge call this sorta thing an inciting incident.

Egged on by his militaristic bowling buddy (John Goodman), the Dude vows to right this wrong. As a consequence he gets sucked into a convoluted Alice in Wonderland journey through the dark side of sunny SoCal, encountering German Nihilists, an avant garde artist nutcase (Julianne Moore) who wants his sperm, the porn king himself in a James Bond villain estate, and several hallucinations — including a spoof of a Busby Berkeley musical that’s worth the price of admission. Various kidnappings, ransoms, embezzlement, doublecrosses, beatings and fights ensue.

The plot's hard to follow — but that's part of the joke. It took a couple of viewings, but I finally realized this is a parody of a Raymond Chandler novel set in seedy LA and environs. Basically, the Dude is Phillip Marlowe — minus the detective skills. Brilliant Marlowe gets the crap beaten out of him, then solves the case. The Dude, pot-addled though he may be, has the same experience. His Taoist, go-with-the-flow philosophy brings him out of the Chandleresque rabbit hole in one piece.

The Dude not only abides. He prevails.

No comments: