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Scott Ventura >> Movie Commentary >> November 1998 >> The Big Lebowski
One of the great charms of Big Lebowski is the straight-faced treatment of absurdity. Either that, or it's the absurd treatment of the ordinary. Sometimes it's hard to tell, but it's always funny. The movie heavily features bowlers, shown in all their dead-serious glory, but in slow-motion, letting the audience bask in the glorious idiosyncrasies of its subjects.
I wasn't crazy about Fargo, but it alerted me to the Coen brothers' amazing skill with getting detailed portrayals from their actors. There isn't a bad performance in the movie, but a few really stand out. Jeff Bridges and John Goodman really own their characters. This isn't the broadest range of human emotion brought to the screen, but I doubt you could find me two more convincing performances in a comedy. Their delivery is impeccable in every scene, which says a lot given the looniness of what they must deliver. For being emotionally simple, though, the characters are brimming with detail. Since the script doesn't ask them to change, they don't. They're that much more charming at the end because we haven't been forced to endure stock sentimentality.
I can't leave out the excellent work of Julianne Moore or Philip Seymour Hoffman, both of whom were also great in Boogie Nights. Moore's Maude Lebowski, a "strongly vaginal" abstract artist, rolls countless artistic stereotypes into one package. Hoffman's Brandt blends an insipid cheerfulness with strong sycophant tendencies.
Let's not forget some of the characters with almost negligible screen time. Warren Keith makes a wonderful funeral director trying his best to maintain an air of decorum when presented with the wily Walter. Jesse Flanagan plays Larry Sellers as though he's dead, and it's exactly what the part needs. His unflappability may seem too easy to give much credit for, but I love it. And, of course, John Turturro's Jesus is the wackiest bowler you'll ever see.
As an example of the cinematic craft, the movie is more solid than might appear at first. The plot, while based on a somewhat far-out premise, isn't too hard to swallow, and is surprisingly consistent. Even after repeat viewings, I've yet to find plot holes and similar distractions. That's a lot more than most movies can brag.
Big Lebowski also shows inventiveness in some of its visuals. A punch with the fist approaching the camera cuts to a firework which morphs into an aerial shot of Los Angeles at night. This lead-in to a dream sequence is delightfully creative. There's another dream sequence later in a style that hearkens back to the great Busby Berkeley. Big points to the Coens for bringing back dances with overhead cameras and bizarre costumes for the chorus.
I really like the menu design on this DVD. The bowling alley feel is perfectly in harmony with the movie. The neon and wood are really slick. The chapter menu is hierarchical, making it faster to get to individual chapters. There are filmographies and biographies for the Coens and six members of the cast, but not much attention was put into it, as evidenced by typos and occasionally bizarre page breaks. There's an interview featurette with the Coens interspersed with clips. I usually prefer commentary tracks, but I'll live. On the bright side, some of the technical tricks are shown, which commentary wouldn't quite get. There are some odd motion artifacts in the featurette, but not the movie. I was very disappointed that the subtitles are only in French and Spanish, and the audio is only in English. While listening in other languages usually holds only moderate interest for me, having English subtitles is something I consider a must.