Twenty years on from the original release the Coen brothers’ classic film, The Big Lebowski still has great comedic value – even if it does show its age slightly with dated pop culture references. Despite receiving mixed reviews upon its original release, the film has gone on to become a cult classic and is now one of the defining works of the Coen brothers’ careers. The story is unique in the fact it introduces a vast number of plot lines and characters that ultimately end up being insignificant, which contributes to the film’s overall shambolic comedy.
Jeffery Lebowski, or “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges) as he prefers to be known as, is a docile man who gets mixed up in Los Angeles’ underworld of kidnapping, pornography and blackmail, seemingly through a string of random accidents. He becomes involved purely by coincidence as he shares the name with another Jeffery Lebowski whose wife owes a considerable amount of money to some sleazy characters in the Adult entertainment industry. Thugs come to The Dude’s private residence to demand payment but after they realise he clearly has very little money they realise they may have the wrong man.
After going to see the other Jeffery Lebowski to demand some sort of compensation for his rug, The Dude is happy to return to bowling with his best friends Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi) but a change of events see him become further embroiled when the other Jeffery Lebowski asks him to drop off a case full of money in return for the safe release of his wife. The drop off unfolds into a calamity as Walter, a Vietnam veteran with incredible mood swings, completely overthinks the scenario and brings a bag full of underwear to swap for the real money so they can keep the million dollars given to them by Lebowski. Bridges’ character is very much the audience perspective throughout the scene and his laidback style of processing the events blunts the suspense and keeps the situation ever on the verge of hilarity.
Despite conceptually being quite serious, the film maintains a light-hearted comedic feel thanks to strong characters whose actions always seem to diffuse any tension. Punchy one-liners delivered by the characters help to fill the gaps between the comedy, like when The Dude, asked a question about his bowling ball, answers with “Obviously you’re not a golfer”. His relaxed style and casual appearance is often the polar opposite of the other characters he encounters; his relationship with Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) exemplifies this – she is a motivated intelligent artist who is direct in conversation, whereas The Dude mumbles and loses focus throughout their meeting.
The film truly feels like stepping back into the late nineties. From the setting of the declining bowling alley to the ‘state-of-the-art’ mobile phone the size of a cinder block, numerous tools help transport the viewer back to a simpler pre-internet age. This is topped of by a vast array of dated references; characters mentioning home video as ‘up and coming’ and Walter’s unusual Vietnam war flashbacks give the film a distinctive setting in time as well as location. This fosters a sense of nostalgia in the film which perfectly complements the comedy and fuels a feeling of escapism, taking viewers back to a younger age traditionally associated with happiness and simplicity.
A period classic, The Big Lebowski is a superbly directed comedy with an excellent blend of characters who entertain simply through their interactions with one another and their reactions to the situations they find themselves in. The film may feel dated, but in many ways this benefits the piece, from enriching the comedic value and sense of escapism to thoroughly grounding this film in the late nineties, cementing its reputation as a classic of the era. While the pop culture references certainly anchor the film in the past, they do not detract from its comedic value, on the contrary, they embolden it.
The Big Lebowski screened at Glasgow Film Theatre to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Anyone aged between 15 and 25 can get a free card from GFT that entitles them to £5.50 tickets to any standard screening.
By Archie Grant