Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) is a bit down on his luck. He’s run up some pretty substantial debts, and will be in trouble for fraudulent affairs any day now, as soon as the bank realise the cars he has been claiming against don’t actually exist. The solution to his problem? Arrange for his wife to be kidnapped, so Jerry can collect on the ransom from his wealthy father-in-law. Unfortunately the miscreants hired to do the kidnapping, Carl and Gaear (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), bungle the escape, leaving enough clues for the police chief, a heavily pregnant Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), to begin tracking everyone down and sorting this mess out.
Few films as short as this (98 minutes) have room to divulge us with background lives – a meeting with an old school friend, conversations about stamps – whilst still keeping the action moving briskly. Every line is considered and real, every character feels genuine, and this is the greatest proof you can find against the argument that the Coens can only write caricatures. Often underrated, this film can never be over-seen, and no-one can call themselves a film fan unless they’ve both seen it, and loved it. The title of this blog was very nearly called Your Accomplice in the Wood Chipper, and a car boot opening has never made me laugh before.
I’ve made the point before that the list contains films of three varieties; great, popular and important. The greats arrive via the Empire 5-star 500 list, the popular from the two lists voted by the general public, and the important ones are provided by the 1001 Films to See Before You Die. Many films, though arguably important, aren’t actually very good, so one could argue that they should be remembered and acknowledged for their gifts to cinema, but not necessarily watched, as was the case with the Jazz Singer, marking the introduction of spoken dialogue to the big screen, which nowadays is dull, racist and features too many unnecessary songs. The Big Lebowski, on the other hand, is also an important film, spawning a cult following so vast there is a fan club (the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers), several books and an annual festival (creatively named Lebowski-Fest, I hope to attend one day). And yet, it does not appear among the important list, appearing here after being awarded a 5-star review and obtaining positions on both nominated lists. This is less a crime and more a cultural injustice, as the impact this film has had on society is measurable from space. Hell, they even played clips of it recently on Something for the Weekend.
So just what is it that resonates so much with the public? Maybe it’s the snappy, endlessly quotable dialogue (“Obviously you’re not a golfer), particularly everything said in the bowling alley. Or perhaps it’s the borderline caricature roster of characters on display, from John Turtorro’s lilac-hued pederast Jesus (whom nobody fucks with) to Julianne Moore’s naked yet cultured Pollock-esque artist Maud and of course John Goodman’s psychotic ‘Nam vet Walter. It’s probably got something to do with the extremely crowded plot that bears little effect upon the characters it happens to. But mainly, it has to be Jeff Bridges turn as The Dude, a man shambling and smoking his way through life, following the flow it leads him on via nihilists, urinating Chinamen, porn moguls and private detectives. That, and it’s the first great film to feature a pot-smoking lead since Cheech and Chong, and one must conclude that many of those attending Lebowski-Fest, drinking white Russians in their dressing gowns and sunglasses have similar feeling towards the weed as his Dudeness.
Me? I love it because it’s a quintessential Coen Brothers movie. It features everything you need to make a great film – a twisting plot, stellar cast (I haven’t even mentioned Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reid, Sam Elliot, David Thewlis, Aimee Mann or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Flea), terrific performances all round and a cracking soundtrack. The film introduced me to my cocktail of choice – Vodka, Kahlua and milk, easy on the Kahlua and heavy on the ice – and every time I watch it I either see something new or am reminded of a moment of pure gold I’d previously forgotten.