I can only recall reviewing (openly) one Coen brothers movie—The Man Who Wasn’t There. It was always the exception, the movie of theirs I liked, even though I really didn’t like most of the others I’d seen all that much. However, they all gave me the feeling I should give them another chance. I bought Barton Fink when it showed up on the cheap, and the same for this film, Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (no, I didn’t like any of them all that much the first time). Barton Fink I came back to and found the ending is still crap (though I pretty much like the rest of it), and the rest I’ve yet to re-watch.
However, this one did work better for me the second time. There wasn’t anything as distinctly off-putting as the ending of Barton Fink this time, which was helpful toward that. I could remember why the film had bothered me before–between the extreme reputation it has been given by its fans, the reference to scenes I had yet to see and John Goodman’s character (Walter Sobchak) who is truly annoying, I know that’s what got to me–but this time it was not there (ie, “This movie is soooo great, watch it!”–that expectation is difficult to live up to, but this time *I* chose to see it) or was less pervasive (I knew more what was coming from Walter). I enjoyed it a lot until Walter started hijacking the plot and becoming obstinate and irritating, but, I also knew that it was appropriate for the character. It did cross a line into slightly grating, but it worked for the role.
It’s more interesting to watch a movie like this after seeing a fair bit of film noir, and of being more familiar with the genre and its archetypes and stories. Now I could see what the Coens just said in an interview–it’s a twist on Raymond Chandler’s plotting and writing style. I could see it, now, and appreciated it that much more with that in mind. I often comment on my appreciation for naturalistic acting and writing, and for things “fitting” very well in my mind. This is just that; the absurd and jocular characters that are “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges) and Walter, while they would have no place in true Chandler, here work perfectly, both as in-over-their-head dupes in noir style, and as comedic caricatures in a very nice way. There’s no feeling of dissolution between the two concepts and neither is compromised in the process. Jeff is particularly great as a laidback, come-what-may pothead who insists he be called “The Dude” (“Or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing,”) and appears in the movie when accidentally mistaken for another Jeff Lebowski (his real name) and gets caught up in a kidnapping and ransom plot. Walter is his Vietnam veteran friend, who has no bones about bringing up that past, and shows extremist right-wing tendencies (apparently in reference to John Milius) as well as another tendency–that of being a moron. Their only other real companion is Donny (the inimitable Steve Buscemi) who is a fellow member of their bowling team–consistently told to “shut the fuck up” by Walter.
Some of the great fun of the movie (I honestly don’t find it so hilarious or quotable as most seem to, which helps when I watch it of my own volition and on my own terms; I can appreciate the things I like instead of what someone else thinks I SHOULD like about it) is in the dreams/fantasies The Dude has, of giant bowling alleys and nihilists with humongous scissors, and also from an absolutely great soundtrack–including some Creedence and Dylan.
But certainly enjoying the characters is the best part for, I think, everyone. Some like to cling to the dialogue I’ve found, but I just enjoy them. The Dude is perfect in his cobbling together of the speech of others and being totally unself-conscious (especially in his strange dream about Maude), as he rambles in every explanation he makes, often repeating himself, stumbling and inserting verbal placeholders like “man” constantly. He has the appropriate slovenly look about him, as well as just the right manner, in the way he rolls himself up into chairs instead of simply sitting in them. Walter is irritating as all hell, but he’s perfect as the character that he is, in an odd way. He moves the plot the way his character would and says stupid things just like the character should, and becomes perversely entertaining as a result. John Turturro, another repeat actor (like Goodman and Buscemi) for the Coens has a great small part as “The Jesus” Quintana, a very self-absorbed pederast bowling opponent for the boys. His dances, insults and general manner are completely lived in by Turturro, who I’ve rarely seen in such a ridiculous and energetic role. Philip Seymour Hoffman appears as the assistant to the “other” Jeff Lebowski, eminently diplomatic and polite,and a complete-asskisser when it comes to his boss, as well as a bit oblivious on numerous occasions. His interactions with The Dude are some of the best in the movie. Jon Polito has a tiny role as an eager new private eye, without much to chew on, but playing in that same nervous, slippery Polito style we know and love. Flea (of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Peter Stormare form the core of a group of “nihilists” who carry around a marmot* and fail at their own philosophy (or lack thereof). Dom Irrera and David Thewlis have terribly small parts, as a chaffeur and giggly video artist named “Knox Harrington” respectively, but I’m always ok with seeing David Thewlis in almost any role.
To avoid ENDING on a bad note, let me address Julianne Moore now. I do not like Julianne Moore. I would be glad for her parts to be replaced digitally** in every film I’ve seen her in with someone else entirely. She’s not a good actor. Never have seen her as one, not under the Coens, not under P.T. Anderson, and not even under Altman. She’s just not good. She’s very wooden and it’s very annoying and I wish she would go away. I may have been most set against her for her awful turn as Clarice Starling in Hannibal (against Jodie Foster she is as nothing) but I really haven’t been impressed by anything else she’s done. That said, being as we’re operating in something that doesn’t (necessarily) require dramatic chops, and in fact can lend itself to unusually unrealistic and unnatural characters, it does KIND OF work here.
So, as I said, I didn’t want to END on a bad note, so now I can mention Sam Elliott. The man has just got a great voice, and to hear that low, gravelly rumble narrating the beginning accidentally mis-step and go off on a tangent is great. When he finally appears with his silly aphorisms and advice for the dude, oh it’s great. That humongous brush of a moustache and the cowboy hat with that authoritative voice, yet in a character who is in awe of someone like The Dude and waxes poetically about him–brilliant. We lose none of that Sam Elliott-ness while still gaining an amusing sort of naŠveté in him. He also addresses the one thing that I know really bothered me about the movie the first time I saw it (which I won’t name) in his final, onscreen narration, which is quite charming in the above mentioned fashion.
*yes, I know it is neither an “amphibious rodent” nor a marmot and is, in fact, a ferret, but marmot is actually a hilarious word, I have to admit.
**not really, I would be philosophically opposed, but, close enough to it