Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (The Big Lebowski)

It didn't take the Coen Brothers a long time to establish a reputation as interesting filmmakers.  Blood Simple (1984) was one of the most acclaimed debuts of the '80s, and the follow up, Raising Arizona (1987) was a major hit.  Barton Fink (1991) baffled audiences and critics alike, but it received the unprecedented honor of winning the top three prizes at the Cannes Film Festival (Palme D'or, Best Director, and Best Actor).  It was Fargo (1996), a film that earned almost unanimously positive reviews and which was nominated for most of the major Academy Awards, which cemented the Coen Brothers' public image as iconoclastic filmmakers.  Newly established Coen fans might've expected the duo to follow the relatively reserved Fargo with a similarly understated and serious-yet-quirky drama.  But the Coens didn't build their reputation by doing what was expected of them.  True to form, they followed the "mature" Fargo with an epically self-indulgent and cartoonish stoner comedy.  While The Big Lebowski (1998) has gone on to become the Coens' most popular film – and, along with Anchorman, the signature comedy of its generation – it initially perplexed viewers expecting another austere, award-winning film.  Above all else, the Coens deserve credit for once again following their muse instead of the money or the awards, and it's always exciting to see them come up with the least predictable possible follow ups for their previous films.

This isn't to say that The Big Lebowski is by any means a totally unique film.  Like Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye and Ivan Passer's Cutter's Way, it updates Raymond Chandler-style noir fiction with hippie burnouts playing the detectives investigating the wealthy squares who rule the world.  Unemployed slacker Jeff Bridges gets sucked into a world of intrigue when a pair of thugs mistakes him for wealthy tycoon David Huddleston.  That is the basic story of The Big Lebowski, but since this is a Coen film, a very simple mistaken identity setup leads to a complicated series of misunderstandings motivated largely by the various characters' stupidity.

And yet The Big Lebowski feels less cynical and more open-hearted than any Coen film to this point, due in large part to the lived-in and nuanced lead performances of Bridges and John Goodman, who plays Bridges' best friend/main source of stress.  Either character could've seemed like a broad caricature in the hands of less skilled actors, but Bridges and Goodman's complete lack of self-consciousness makes the former's liberal stoner and the latter's conservative paranoiac feel like real people.  Bridges brings a weird nobility and elegance to his slobby character even when he is doing something completely ridiculous, which is most of the time.  Though he appears in practically every shot of this two-hour film, Bridges never once winks at the audience or suggests that he is cooler than his character, and his total investment in the role makes The Big Lebowski immeasurably funnier than it would've been with a more typical comedic performance.  Goodman similarly manages to get inside his character's skin, making his gun nut as relatable as he is ludicrous, but without going for any awards-bait pathos that would distract from the freewheeling comedy.

Unfortunately, the enormous supporting cast isn't allowed the same room for nuance as Bridges or Goodman.  Nearly every one of the regular Coen players reappears in some form in The Big Lebowski, with Frances McDormand being the only really notable exception.  Steve Buscemi plays the third member of Bridges and Goodman's bowling team, his quiet demeanor a meta reversal of his chatterbox Fargo hitman.  Peter Stormare shows up as the leader of a gang of Teutonic nihilists, John Turturro plays a flamboyant Latino bowler, and Jon Polito has a brief cameo as a private eye.  Then-rising stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore appear as, respectively, a Smithers-like sycophant to Huddleston, and an avant-garde feminist artist.  Legendary method actor Ben Gazzara plays a slick porn producer.  Sam Elliott pops up occasionally as an inexplicable cowboy narrator.  The It's a Mad Mad Mad World-style cast even has room for Flea and Tara Reid.  One could argue, with some justification, that this parade of freakish one-note characters is a poor use of such a fine cast, and it is certainly true that none of these characters feel like plausible human beings the way that Bridges and Goodman do.  On the other hand, the talented actors do manage, for the most part, to make their parts more interesting than they probably were in the script.  At least half of these characters serve literally no function in the plot, but they do provide a vivid backdrop for the story to take place in.

While The Big Lebowski finds the Coen Brothers making some partial strides in characterization, it also finds them strengthening their already rock-solid technical craftsmanship.  By this point it goes without saying that Roger Deakins is an incredible cinematographer, and his wide lens, glossy, neon-lit compositions here really show off his versatility after the austere palette of Fargo.  The Coens' script has the "anything for a laugh" feel of a film like Airplane!, yet the source of the comedy is often based around hilariously specific details (such as Bridges paying for a bottle of milk with a check) rather than broad humor (and the film tends to be at its worst when it swings for the fences, as it does with Moore's unfortunately shrill simultaneous stereotyping of feminism and abstract art).  There are several moments that are visceral and weird in the way that only Coen scenes can be, such as the one where the nihilists release a ferret in Bridges' bathwater, or the one where a cop hits Bridges directly in the forehead with a coffee mug during an interrogation.  The music supervision of T-Bone Burnett demands a mention as well.  His use of post-'60s acid burnout music gives the film a sense of consistency even as the Coens go on their most ill-advised tangents; the resurrection of Kenny Rogers' forgotten attempt at psychedelic rock, "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" nearly justifies a pointless and unfunny late-film dream sequence.  It could use a little trimming, and it may not be "substantial" enough to be a truly great film, but The Big Lebowski is nonetheless the most entertaining, energetic, and exciting film that the Coen Brothers have made up to this point.

UP NEXT  O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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