Wednesday, June 15, 2011


The Coen Brothers have made several excellent films including Fargo and No Country for Old Men, but my favorite is The Big Lebowski. 

Jeff Bridges stars as Jeff Lebowski, but everyone knows him as "The Dude." He is an unemployed slacker and avid bowler and gets involved in a convoluted scheme of kidnapping, extortion, and mistaken identity. The film takes place in LA and is influenced loosely by Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. The Big Lebowski didn't do well on release, but over the years has grown in stature and has become a cult classic. It is full of idiosyncratic characters, unconventional dialogue, an eclectic soundtrack and contains amazing and elaborate dream sequences.

The film is narrated by The Stranger played by Sam Elliot who appears at the beginning, middle, and end of the film. He rolls into LA with a tumbleweed to tell the tale of The Dude. His narration is marked by a thick, laid-back Texas accent and on two occasions he converses with The Dude. He doesn't like The Dude's laziness or use of profanity, but admires him for being a unique character. When asked what he does for recreation the Dude responds: "I bowl, drive around, and have the occasional acid flashback."

The first time we see The Dude, he is in the supermarket, in his robe, buying milk , which is an essential ingredient to his favorite drink, the White Russian. When he returns home he is mugged, beaten, and has his head plunged into a toilet, by two men who demand money because they think he is a different Jeffrey Lebowski. One of the men pisses on his rug, but after they realize their mistake they leave.

At the urging of his best friend and bowling partner Walter, played by John Goodman, he decides to confront the other Lebowski and have him pay for a new rug. Walter is a total maniac with a violent temper. He is a Vietnam Veteran and is in constant confrontations with others. Steve Buscemi plays Donny, their other bowling partner, but Donny can hardly get a word out because of the overbearing nature of Walter.

The Dude goes to the house of the millionaire Lebowski who is an older invalid and without a pleasant personality. He looks down on The Dude and refuses to pay, but The Dude still takes a rug of his choice when he leaves. On his way out he encounters Bunny the old man's young wild wife played by Tara Reid. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the older Lebowski's assistant.

A few days later they call the Dude up and want to hire him to drop the money to kidnappers who have taken Bunny. The Dude and Walter fuck up the drop and eventually it appears that Bunny is doomed as a toe arrives in the mail. 

These scenes are interspersed with bowling scenes, and we are introduced to Jesus Quintana,  "The Jesus, " played by John Turturro. He wears purple clothes and is always confronting Walter. Walter tells the dude that Jesus did time for being a pederast and exposing himself to an 8-year old. We see a flashback of Jesus going door to door informing his neighbors that he now lives in their community. After emerging from the bowling alley the Dude, Walter, and Donny realize that the Dude's car has been stolen.

Maude, the daughter of the other Lebowski summons the Dude. Julianne Moore plays her as a pretentious, avant-garde artist, who thinks Bunny has kidnapped herself with the help of the nihilist played by Peter Stormare. She shows the Dude a porno with the both of them called Log Jammin' and the album the nihilist produced when in the band Autobahn. Maude also wants to conceive a child with the Dude but besides that wants nothing to do with him.

In another crazy scene the nihilists come to the Dude's pad and throw a ferret into the bathtub with him. They continue to abuse him and demand money.

So where is the money? and where is Bunny? 

In another scene The Dude and Walter go to the house of Larry a high school student who they think has the money. The kid refuses to speak to them so Walter goes off on an orange Corvette parked outside, thinking the kid had paid for it with the stolen money, but of course as usual Walter has jumped to conclusions to quickly.

There are two major dream sequences. The first has The Dude flying on a rug over LA and then into a bowling ball where he is rolled down the alley. The second comes later when his White Russian is drugged by Jackie Treehorn and is an elaborate choreographed sequence featuring dancing girls, more flying, and fear and desire with a bowling theme, put to Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition.

The music also includes works by Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart, Elvis Costello, Nina Simone, Moondog, Meredith Monk, The Eagles, Creedence, and Townes Van Zandt. 

The Big Lebowski is like no other film and has so much going on that it holds up to repeated viewings. It is hilarious and a mind-expanding trip.

The Coen Brothers came out with their first film Blood Simple in 1984. Set in Texas, the film tells the story of a sleazy bar owner who hires a private detective to kill his wife and her lover. It sets the stage with the elements that will mark their work, including distinctive homages to genre movies, especially film noir and horror, plot twists layered over a simple story, dark humor, and a distinctive visual style with great lighting, composition, and atmosphere. The film also introduced Frances McDormand who would later marry Joel Coen and become a wonderful actress in her own right.

This was followed by Raising Arizona (1988), which would be the beginning of the more screwball, over the top comedies that would alternate with the heavier more dramatic pieces.

Miller's Crossing (1990) starred Albert Finney, Gabriel Byrne, and John Turturro and was about feuding gangsters in the Prohibition era.

Barton Fink was made in 1991, and is about a playwright who goes to Hollywood to write the screenplay for a B-Movie, but suffers from writer's block. Turturro and Goodman are the main characters in Barton Fink.

The Hudsucker Proxy came out in 1994 and was about a large Corporation who tries to sabotage their own share price by appointing a no-hoper as boss, but their plan backfires when he invents the hula-hoop.

In 1996, Fargo came out and cemented the Coen Brothers as great film artists.  It also thrust William H. Macy into the forefront of great actors with his performance as a man with serious financial problems who has his wife kidnapped so that his wealthy father-in-law will pay the ransom. The plan goes wrong when the kidnappers (Buscemi and Stormare) deviate from the plan. The pregnant local cop Marge Gunderson played amazingly by Frances McDormand starts to investigate. The dialogue and northern accent of the characters add to the film's offbeat and unique quality.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) was loosely based on  Homer's Odyssey and included scenes with a cyclops and sirens. The story is set in Mississippi in the 1930s and follows a trio of escaped convicts who journey home to recover the money from a past bank heist. It stars George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro, and John Goodman. The bluegrass soundtrack became even more successful than the film.

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) was a film noir set in 1940s California and shot in black and  white. Billy Bob Thornton plays a laconic, chain-smoking barber who blackmails his wife's lover. Frances McDormand and a young Scarlett Johannson also make appearances in this slow dark film.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003) starred Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones and is a throwback to romantic comedies of the 40s.

The Ladykillers (2004) was a remake and starred Tom Hanks who assembles a team to rob a casino, but turn to murder when their landlady uncovers their plot.

In 2007, the Coens made one of the best films of the 21st Century so far in No Country For Old Men. It is based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy and follows Vietnam Vet Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) living on the Texas/Mexico border who stumbles upon a drug deal gone bad in the desert and comes up with 2 million dollars. He is then pursued by the law and the drug dealers. Tommy Lee Jones plays an older philosophical sheriff and Javier Bardem steals the show as the hitman Anton Chigurh. No Country is part western and part  film-noir and ponders the way of today and the way of the past. It also includes distinctive moments from Woody Harrelson and Kelly Macdonald.

Burn After Reading (2008) was a return to the screwball comedy with a collision of gym rats, spies, and internet dating. it starred Clooney, McDormand, and Brad Pitt.

A Serious Man (2009) is loosely based on the Book of Job and the Coen's own childhood in a Jewish academic family.

In 2010, the Coen Brothers made an excellent remake of True Grit based on the novel by Charles Portis. Jeff Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn and the film also includes Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld as the daughter who is seeking justice for the murder of her father. While more conventional than most of their films, it still contains many qualities that distinguish the work of Ethan and Joel Coen.

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