It’s hard to believe that upon its release in 1998, The Big Lebowski wasn’t universally regarded as a masterpiece. (“Disjointed, incoherent, and even irritating,” sniffed the Los Angeles Times’s Kenneth Turan.) But now, as we view it through the haze of history, it’s impossible not to see the film, about an aging stoner’s Raymond Chandler–esque adventures, for what it is: a deceptively shaggy yet almost perfectly plotted comedy.
What endures from the Coen brothers’ transcendently effortless follow-up to the cutesy hit Fargo isn’t just its relentless quotability (“That rug really tied the room together”; “It don’t matter to Jesus!”) but the way that no character, scene, or joke is wasted, and every setup builds to a precise payoff. Beneath the pot jokes and Busby Berkeley dance sequences, there’s a recurring theme of educated and moneyed elitists’ resenting the movie’s slovenly protagonists. Though the Coens have been (fairly) accused of pretension over the years, for one film, at least, they clearly wished they were slobs. (And by the way: Their imminent Burn After Reading, we’re happy to report, is well over on the Lebowski side of the oeuvre rather than anywhere near Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing.)
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