As a film, The Big Lebowski is a lot like its protagonist, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski. It’s lacking a little in forward moment, preferring to luxuriate in individual moments than get caught up in any big sweeping plot. They’re both hugely influenced by what’s around them: The Dude speaks largely in borrowed phrases from other character’s dialogue, while the film steals from noir, slacker comedies and westerns. The main thing that Lebowski and Lebowski have in common, however, is that they exude purest undiluted charm.
The film is a pastiche of the hard-boiled-detective-pulp-noir tradition, in particular Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and the 1946 film adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart and, personality notwithstanding, The Dude finds himself placed in the role of detective. The film’s humour and personality comes from how ill-fitting he is for the role; not so much hard-boiled as baked.
A case of mistaken identity leads to a urinated-upon rug leads to a meeting with the other, far richer Jeffrey Lebowski and his trophy wife Bunny. Who promptly disappears, as is the way of these things. It’s something I’ve touched on here and there, but I staunchly believe that the detective story is the purest form of fiction, a single driving force driving reader and protagonist forward. Here it’s used to stitch together a loose series of locations and setpieces, from a bacchanalian party at the pad of “known pornographer” Jackie Treehorn to the sweary smashing up of a stranger’s car.
It gives the Coens an excuse to show off. There are shots of a naked woman against a sheer black background being thrown up beyond the top of the frame and falling out of sight before trampolining back up; dream sequences which mix opera, bowling, and porn. It’s absolutely luscious cinema of a type that’s rare in comedies.
The places we’re led through are individually fascinating, brilliant proof that it’s not just fantasy films that do great world-building, but it’s The Dude’s charm that ties the piece together as, for example, a fine rug might tie together a room. He’s a force of personality, a common theme that will emerge a lot in the films to come (particularly numbers 5, 4 and 2). The kind of guy who goes shopping in his pyjamas, and buys a single carton of milk with a cheque. Without seeming to try, his appearance is totally iconic; dressing gown, shades, and permanent lowball of White Russian adding up to a slacker Jesus.
The film is full of quotable lines, and for the most part The Dude merely echoes them, but the fact that they’re being delivered by Jeff Bridges. Every line is delivered perfectly, given the slightest spin, and he makes even the slightest movement almost quotable. It seems like an easy, comfortable performance but in truth Bridges is an high-precision surgeon of an actor in this film. He effortlessly makes The Dude someone in whose presence you want to spend all of your time. And The Big Lebowski, in two-hour chunks, gives you the opportunity to do just that.