By Stephen Thanabalan (Singapore)
I first stumbled onto this movie in 1999 and happened to catch it again recently, and it just still makes me want to grab a glass, pour that Kahlua (and add milk and vodka) to join Jeff Bridges and the oat soda dudes for a slacking good time of convolutely escapist and trashy proportions, complete with the odd character ‘heroes’ of LA of course.
And that’s exactly how this film couches you in. Now, the film itself is nowhere as great a film as it is critically rated and for me, this is down to the sheer fact that it lacks truly redemptive qualities of reconciliation, or say, tying together a greater purpose behind the whole brouhaha, let alone its semi self-congratulatory/flatter to deceive pretensions that screams Coen brothers desperation (with over eclectic homages a la Tarantino). To be fair though, this film has nothing gaining on a great plot like say its parallels with Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel, The Big Sleep, of which it does no justice to in being loosely related to by fans and critics.
In a more forgiving light of wanton nostalgia, perhaps one could see why the Coens were touted as attempting to revive the film noir genre. In actual fact, the Coens were arguably modifying it, and give the noir genre a satirical black comedy twist. And therein thy royal highness of film school is where one must concede that anyone trying to overanalyze this film is missing the point of it all: pardon moi mademoiselle, zis is a slacker film – get over it. In a sense, there is no need for me to carp about how it has no greater purpose or need for thematic arcs that actually feed rationale ends. Its means are all that matters. In fact, the film’s greater purpose can be looked at this way: that since it’s the ultimate slacker film, it has no need for a greater or higher meaning in the first place. But, that’s just like, my opinion, man.
Let’s say, just like the rug that ‘held the room together’, Bridges, the Dude, in an oddly engaging way, was the only thing that held the film together. Save also for an unbelievably spaced out and unconventionally witty and nihilistic (which is ironic considering the brilliant Coen brothers seemed to be mocking nihilists) plot and script, the film is one of the most anti-establishment in terms of relativism, yet is nowhere near being a comedic philosophical piece as it otherwise caricatures itself. Instead, it’s more like it is just ridiculously dressed to flirt with your sense of random humour, delivered with deadpan comic timing.
Of course, there is a certain sadistic genius to it all, owing in some sense to the elements that lie in the film’s references to a whole shebang of goings-on. Listen to this: there’s double crossing and pseudo complications, with updated time-lines of course (it’s 1991- Sad’m and I-raq), but, wait, there’s also anti-1980s yuppie achievement ethos coupled with the fact that the ones parlaying all this philosophical ranting are a motley crew of unconventional ‘heroes’ you least expect to talk philosophy. And, that’s exactly what they don’t do, in fact, they just talk shop with The Dude. And, that’s what it is…man…I mean, like…Dude, you know…I mean, that is, in Coen Brothers parlance, de rigeur, right dude? Complete with the standard issue oddball fest of characters one can imagine; that’s what they do, man.
The Coens seem to be competing with Fellini for most numbers of colorful characters a director can fit into a single shot. But, seriously, who can blame them when the interplay between this colourful mishmash is this unconventional? It’s buried in here that you find the film’s best bits! These gems are nestled not inside the parallels with the faux noirish/Big Sleep pretensions but rather, in the nature of the unpredictably predictable yet wacky plot directions which are certainly part underbelly psychological black comedy and part pseudo film noir laced with double entendres.
Now, the plot is not the main steal, rather it’s almost a straw man, as it is mainly just is a vehicle for the hilariously zany dialog between characters’ to platform itself. Want to know just how insane the dialog was? Read the memorable quotes from the film on the Internet- you might just thank me later for wasting an hour of your life you’d never get back. But that’s what this film does to watchers. You just sit there and keep lapping it up. It’s a waste of space and time, but, there you are, with your oat soda, still lapping up the dialogue. In fact, such is the nature of the film’s cultish appeal, there are even parallels in this film that might lead some to speak of a religion in ‘Dudism’ (and its enlightenment of non-ideals), and I bet there are some crazed converts out there right now, lost in its futility. Nonetheless, because of these slacker ideals and the Dude’s apathy or value system (relativism) toward life, and however I feel about the futility of it all, obviously, the ‘Dude’ character must have been classic enough to warrant such cult-like attention.
This is down to two factors. One, Jeff Bridges and his performance, which will be a hallmark in his career, without a doubt. Secondly, the ridiculous story/plot I mentioned earlier.
Alright, dude, its complex, but let me have a go. Ok, so, basically….in the story, The Dude obviously steals the plot, for without him there is no impetus, for, after all, it revolves around him taking it easy out there “for the rest of us”. Well, the plot is that he ironically is having his slacker existence completely turned upside down. He is forced out of slack jawed Bohemia as a result of his rug getting micturated on by a pornographer’s thugs whose boss wants cash owed by the young trophy wife of a rich tycoon who is his namesake. Hilarity ensues under series after series of incredulous circumstances when the Dude asks the Bigger Lebowski for compensation and in turn gets the Big L offering a ‘cash’ job for him despite calling him a disgrace to the name.
Never one to mind the insults but to always remain “cool”, The Dude takes the briefcase full of ‘cash’ before then losing it, only to find he the had been duped in a ‘ringer for a ringer’ when the paraquat tycoon had actually wanted his porn acting wife dead and handed him an empty briefcase. The Dude assumed the wife kidnapped herself, and then later discovers that nihilists want a share of the money and are out to kill him. He constantly manages to find time to go bowling though, and Big L’s daughter gets acquainted with the Dude by showing up at his apartment to mess with him as she opposes the plan her father had, and all this while a private investigator trails the Dude looking for the wife, who in the end, had just gone away for the weekend, in a shock Hitchcock-esque secondary macguffin on top of the basic macguffin of the ‘rug’ – which the Dude claimed was the very motivation for everything because all he wanted was compensation for his rug getting micturated upon. You see why this movie is such a classic, don’t you?
Well, you really have to watch the film to understand what’s going on. Nonetheless, technically, there are some unique film techniques used throughout this film, including blending soundtracks from previous scenes by way of songs being played on radios, or having dialog repeated, such as when the Dude constantly rehashes phrases he heard in the previous scenes (from Julianne Moore’s character, Bush’s speech, etc). One of the most quirky bits of the film can be described by a phrase from the Dude yet again, but I won’t tell you about it, just go watch it, although I will say it occurs in one of two occasional ‘acid flashbacks’ – spaced out hallucination scenes where the cannabis smoking Dude flies through the bowling lane, or over LA, as he engages his predicament with slacker escapism that will delight every couch potato.
Making the bricolage plot even more colorful is the character of Walter, played brilliantly by John Goodman, who is a highlight of the film – representing a Vietnam scarred war veteran who associates events in the world with the horrors he has experienced. Yet, what is interesting about Walter is that it seemed he is modeled as both an anti-slacker rationalist and yet ironically the most pent up pro-NRA and camouflage velcro clad yob in town, a possible cross between the Jewish German Walter Kaufmann (the irony again) and an anarchistic gun crazy war machine- a rambunctious combination that results in lines like ‘at least the Nazis had ethos’ and so on.
Coen fave Steve Buscemi’s character adds the fragile dimension by asking the obvious questions and being constantly told to shut up (in an inside joke reference to their previous hit, Fargo), before dying off unceremoniously. Likewise, many of the other oddball “hero” characters are borderline offensive to the mainstream yet one can’t help but crack up in wake of their absolutely crazy antics that tendentiously swing toward the crude yet comic. From the crotch gyrating bowler to the visual gag that saw the Dude trace pornographer Jackie Treehorn sketching a giant erection, these moments are absolute cases in black comedy point. Other characters like the stranger (or the narrating cowboy) are there for memorable cameos and pure shoeshine just for ‘style’ while Da Farino’s scenes were a study in comedic nothingness.
And that’s what this film is – nothingness that served no purpose – I mean, as I said, it’s the Dude, man. El duderino for those who think brevity is…but most important now, don’t forget to sip that white Russian while you slack off watching this.