The following review is spoiler free and is meant to be read BEFORE seeing the movie.
It is sort of a cheat to call Joel & Ethan Coen auteurs. Being the writers of every single one of their directorial efforts makes it a foregone conclusion that their style will shine through. Joel & Ethan Coen are two writers with one strong voice, and they are their own gatekeepers. This can be both a blessing and a curse; their voice is allowed to make it to the screen almost unimpeded by studio interference, allowing their genius to reach a mass audience, but that also means that very few people will stop any bad ideas from getting through…
Thankfully, they have managed to pump out masterpiece after masterpiece. One could worry that the lack of interference could lead to creative stagnation, but that hasn’t happened yet. Consider that as of 2011, the Coens have had four of their films be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, winning one, and three of these nominations (including the win) happened in the last four years. Critical consensus appears to believe that they are only getting better. I’d like to add my voice to the consensus (not that I’m a critic…). They are not only getting better, but they were already great to begin with.
Back in 1998, they put out a phenomenally great comedy called The Big Lebowski. While their dramas have gotten better and better (and sometimes easy to confuse with comedies), their straight comedy peaked at The Big Lebowski, a film that is so unbelievably well written that one could believe they spent decades writing it, and yet this film premiered only two years after their critically acclaimed Fargo.
The Big Lebowski finds Jeffrey Lebowski (The Dude) being assaulted in his home by two thugs mistaking him for Jeffrey Lebowski (The Big Lebowski). The thugs (one of whom would go onto fame in roles in Showtime’s Dexter and ABC’s LOST) demand he repay a debt to Jackie Treehorn, owed by The Big Lebowski’s wife, Bunny. One of the thugs then pees on The Dude’s fucking rug (it really tied the room together). From there, The Dude begins an odyssey to get compensation for his soiled rug. This odyssey involves kidnapping, nihilists, avant-garde artists, White Russians, bowling, a Pomeranian, an Uzi, a fascist chief of police, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Beyond that, I don’t wish to reveal anything more for fear of lessening any new viewers’ enjoyment.
I will say, however, that my favorite part of the writing in this movie is the tendency of characters to pick up catchphrases from other characters they have never even met. I can’t explain why this is funny, but it makes me laugh when one character calls The Dude a “goldbrick,” and then another character (who wasn’t in that scene) uses that word to describe somebody else ten minutes later.
The Big Lebowski is funny because of the precision of the dialogue, the style of the writing, and the larger-than-life characters. My only complaint is that the movie slows to a dead stop a couple of times. It is actually quite jarring. Other than that, Joel & Ethan Coen haven’t topped this yet as far as their straight comedies go; the Ladykillers and Burn after Reading both pale in comparison to The Big Lebowski.