The Big Lebowski (1998)

A layer under the surface, stoner comedies and hard-boiled detective stories actually have a lot in common: Both feature protagonists floating through a world that doesn’t make a lot of sense to them (or even the audience), sucked into misadventures against their will, lots of wrong turns and misunderstandings, and typically end with not much changed.

The Coens capture and magnify those similarities to tell a truly one-of-a-kind story in The Big Lebowski, a movie that built a cult so big I’m not even sure you can call it a “cult movie” anymore. Just a well-loved great film.

As “The Dude” is mistaken for a billionaire, he finds himself on the hunt for his doppelganger’s wife while still making time for his bowling league and drinking a dozen White Russian’s each day. His screw-ups and stumbles ultimately leave everything in a state of comfortable stasis (except, I suppose, for The Dude’s car, Donnie, and a toe).

No amount of trying to describe the premise or setting can do justice to just watching the movie. Its tone and rhythm are so unique, with each episode feeling like a bizarre short film.

As with every Coen movie I’ve seen, each component of the movie is thoughtful and polished and brings out everything else. The acting, in particular, is absolutely excellent: Jeff Bridges and an unhinged John Goodman carry the movie. The real special spice is the supporting cast: Julianne Moore, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, and narrator Sam Elliott all play unforgettable oddballs.

The script is brilliant, too. It’s hard to separate the oft-quoted non-sequiturs from their consistently great deliveries, but few movies make me double over laughing quite as often as this. Some bits don’t land — I’ve always thought the literal violence in the parking lot near the end of the movie feels out of place, and some of the sillier stuff grows old when you watch this 5 times or more like I have — but it bats a high average.

As a clever comedy with such a blend of characters in different social standings, it really seems like The Big Lebowski should be a satire. Maybe it is from some angles: An alcoholic ex-hippie butting heads with a wealthy dark mirror of himself in a post-Reagan society on the verge of another war like the one he fought against; different extremes on the socio-economic-political spectra vying for the soul of our heroes, none able to get it right. Heck, when you lay it all out, it sounds as much like a misanthropic tragedy as anything else.

But the movie itself, mostly to its benefit, doesn’t bother to add any edge to any of that. It’s just a weird stoner-mystery with one kooky encounter after another, adding up to one of the great left-field classics of the past 25 years.

Is It Good?

Exceptionally Good (7/8)

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