As with any Coen Brothers film, The Big Lebowski relies on their exploration of the outrageous comedy and the dark impulses of human nature in a comical spin on film noir, that was styled mostly after The Big Sleep. The thing is though that Jeff Bridges’ character, Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski is no dashing charismatic investigator like Philip Marlowe, but a foolish, lazy, dead-beat hippie who can’t continue a conversation without saying “Man” in almost every sentence. He has very little of value to anyone, which makes it ironic how people keep breaking into his house and roughing him up and threatening him over something he doesn’t have to offer, except his red diamond-decorated rug that an Asian thug can’t resist peeing on or Julianne Moore’s character Maude can’t resist pulling out from under him. It creates a curiosity throughout the film as to what the whole purpose of the idiocies and the mistakes of the multiple characters and the mystery surrounding them are leading up to and we still can’t figure what it all means at the end.
All of the eccentric characters that come his way (The Big Lebowski, the three German nihilists, Treehorn, Maude, and his bowling companion Walter) provide a lot of wit and edge in a world that is full of gangsters, pornography, deceit, loan sharking, and two people with the same names. The mistaken identity between the two Lebowskis is a curious plot device that isn’t explored and it makes an embarrassing case for the Dude when he’s roughed up by the two thugs who think he’s the wealthy “Big Lebowski” with the money owed to their boss, Treehorn, played with elegant and subtle edge by the great Ben Gazzara. The main storyline concerning the Dude’s attempt to rescue the Big Lebowski’s young and perky trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) goes through many twists and turns, such as raising the question whether she was really kidnapped or faked the kidnapping, but it’s not to be taken too seriously when there’s little to care about Bunny as a character or when there was no money dropped off to the kidnappers. The Dude’s friend Walter (John Goodman) never makes it any easier when he’s bombastically jumping to conclusions and cursing into people’s faces, particularly in the scene where he demands from a cold-staring teenager about where to find the ransom money and then smashes his car in response, only that it belongs to the boy’s neighbor. He’s of no help to the situation and only makes things more difficult, even when he thinks “simplicity” is better than a complex solution. He and the Dude’s quiet and confused companion Donnie (Steve Buscemi) has very little to contribute than to observe the action around him and ask questions, which keep getting an angry response from Donnie. Buscemi’s nervous wide-eyed glances at least fill this character with enough intrigue and sympathy for him as he wonders what he’s doing with these two guys in this situation. Julianne Moore approaches Maude as the mysterious and voluptuous femme fatale in the film who is icily direct and devoted to her avant-garde art and pornographic obsession that she comes off as curious and humorous at the same time whenever she provides information to the Dude while keeping occupied with her art. David Thewlis plays a colleague of hers who sits in on a meeting between her and the Dude with a very high-pitched flamboyant laugh as he talks on the phone and works on his computer, providing an amusing backdrop for the eccentric and crazy world of the avant-garde that Maude exists in. The scenes where the Dude gets knocked out and falls into dream-like sequences, like flying after his red carpet over Los Angeles or getting mixed in an operatic scene with Maude dressed as a Valkyrie, provide a strange, whimsical, and surreal touch to the film with how bizarre and idiosyncratic the world of The Big Lebowski really is whenever the Dude is way in over his head.
There are still a few characters that are curious as to what purpose they serve, but I suppose that’s the Coens’ attempt to keep every character in the front space or the background space as equally interesting and hilarious to contribute to their colorful and outrageous style. John Turturro’s character Jesus just shows off about his bowling ability with a thick Cuban accent and a flamboyant purple jumpsuit, yet he is hysterical to watch anyway. Philip Seymour Hoffman is very warm and funny as the savvy Brandt who has to keep speaking between the two Lebowski’s with his soft professional attitude. Sam Elliot is the most curious of all as the Stranger who appears a couple times in the movie to speak to the Dude and provide words of wisdom, yet his purpose is mysterious and we don’t know what he’s contributed, other than Elliot bringing his charming thick Texan accent to our hearts with a lot of warmth and charisma. Peter Stormare as the main “nihilist” who appears to be one of the kidnappers of Bunny attempts to come off as threatening with his thick German accent and black leather outfit, yet he’s still a hilarious fool like everyone else who can’t keep everything going according to plan and gets put in his place.
It’s hard to see what these characters have in common and how they help bring the story to a close when the story keeps making too many twists and turns and these people appear at unexpected moments that make you wonder why they’re here. The two Lebowskis and Walter have nothing to prove or reward in the end as their mistakes and misjudgments lead to chaos and breaks down everything at the end rather than resolve it. Nevertheless, the film is entertaining and curious with all the colorful characters, the dialogue, and the twists that come throughout the film, without requiring a necessary resolution or a clear message. It’s still a curious style all the time with the Coen Brothers in what messages they are trying to make in their films where characters find themselves in humorous and chaotic circumstances with no clear heroes or villains or desired outcomes to choose from.