Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lush, Lush Losers

Films: The Big Lebowski, Sideways
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television (Lebowski), DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop (Sideways).

(Author’s note: I watched The Big Lebowski last week, but haven’t had time to write it up due to my schedule. When a quarter ends, I grade papers dawn to dusk, and movies make good background noise, but I don’t have time to wax philosophic about them. So, while these movies are being presented here on the same day, they were not watched this way.)

Genre bending isn’t easy. In fact, it’s so difficult that often, when a good filmmaker (or in this case, filmmakers) do it, it goes unnoticed. I’ve watched The Big Lebowski a few times, but never realized until this latest viewing that this is more than a really good comedy. This film is a comedy, a spoof of film noir, and an actual film noir itself. I was completely blown away when this hit me. The Coens are far better at what they do than I gave them credit for, and I already give them a lot of credit.

Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), better known as “The Dude” by everyone who has ever met him, finds himself in a great deal of trouble. Unbeknownst to him, the wife of a completely different Jeffery Lebowski has run up debts with a man named Jackie Treehorn. After a shopping trip for half-and-half, The Dude finds two men in his apartment demanding the money from The Dude’s non-existent wife. One of these men urinates on the rug, a tragedy for The Dude, because “that rug really tied the room together.”

The Dude tells his troubles to his bowling friends. These are the militant and stultifyingly blunt Walter (John Goodman) and the mousey, permanently behind-the-current-discussion Donny (Steve Buscemi). Walter suggests finding the other Jeffrey Lebowski to pay for the rug cleaning, and this is what drives the rest of the plot. All The Dude wants is his rug cleaned. He meets the real Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston) and his assistant Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), walks off with a rug, and meets Bunny (Tara Reid), the woman who has run up all the debts.

From here, things get crazy. Bunny Lebowski goes missing, and Jeffrey Lebowski hires The Dude to handle the ransom. Through a series of misadventures, mostly caused by Walter, bad things happen, the hand-off isn’t made, and life gets extremely weird for The Dude for the rest of the film. We encounter the sort of characters that can only exist in the world of the Coen brothers’ ideas.

Among these bizarre characters are a trio of German nihilists (Coen regular Peter Stormare, the awesome Flea, and Torsten Voges), their girlfriend (Aimee Mann), porn king Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), Jeffrey Lebowski’s extravagant artist daughter (Julianne Moore), flamboyant bowling pederast Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), and the country/western narrator (Sam Elliot). These are film characters rather than real characters, which often plays false to my mind, but the film is so broadly comic that the characters work here.

Despite the fact that everything here is comedic, the plot follows basic noir lines. Everything centers on the missing Bunny Lebowski and the equally missing million dollar ransom. No one is what they seem, and only through the white Russian and marijuana-fueled haze of The Dude’s world do we get any information. It takes him awhile to put everything together and put all of the players in their proper place. When the stoned-out, bombed-out Dude manages to think through everything in the end, it’s a magical moment.

Beyond the noir plot, you know, that whole “way the film works” thing that I completely overlooked every other time I’ve seen this film, what’s here is some of the greatest comedic moments in film from the past 20 years. The Dude is a quintessential movie character, someone who quickly became iconic—a drunk Indiana Jones or a fully stoned Napoleon Dynamite. The same is most definitely true of John Goodman’s portrayal of Walter. Walter obsesses over his comrades “dying face down in the mud in Viet Nam” and has charming character traits like pulling a gun on a fellow bowler who faults on his approach.


The reason this film works as a noir is that it starts as a simple problem—get The Dude’s rug cleaned. But everything encountered is smoke and mirrors. Everything that is supposed to make things easier or solve problems proves to make them more difficult, and everything has a deeper meaning. Bunny Lebowski hasn’t been kidnapped. The German nihilists are trying to capitalize on her temporary disappearance, as is Jeffrey Lebowski, who has no money of his own and is desperate to steal the proposed ransom himself. Every simple problem has a complexity that lies under it. It’s noir, but slanted about 10 degrees to the left.

For instance, The Dude, like any noir gumshoe, gets assaulted multiple times and takes his fair share of beatings. However, rather than a series of smacks to the jaw, the assaults are often bizarre, like a ferret being dropped into his bathtub while he’s bathing. Any good noir detective gets the girl, as does The Dude. However, she’s not looking for a relationship—she just wants a baby with someone who won’t take an interest in raising the child. The bad guys aren’t vicious killers, but whiney jerks who get torn apart by a pissed-off Walter. All of the pieces are there; they’re just knocked loose and turned at odd, wonderful angles.

It’s interesting to note as well that Steve Buscemi tends to get killed in Coen movies, and each time, what’s left of him gets smaller and smaller. In Miller’s Crossing, he leaves a faceless body; in Fargo, all that’s left is a leg and a spray of blood and bone. Here, he is cremated, and all that’s left is his ashes.


I do enjoy this film. I think it’s a damn shame that it was removed from the main list. It should still be there.

It’s worth noting this, though: if you are offended by language, this is not a movie that you will enjoy. There is a tremendous amount of language in this film, to the tune of an f-bomb about every 30 seconds on average. That stuff washes over me completely, but I understand that there are people who are truly offended by it, so it’s worth the warning. If you can look past the language, I can’t imagine someone not finding this film entertaining.

On the other end of the boozy spectrum is Sideways. Rather than white Russians made with cheap half-and-half and cheaper vodka, we get drunken wine snobbery. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a failed writer teaching eighth grade and still coming down off a marriage that didn’t work. His best friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), is an actor getting married in a week’s time. Miles and Jack are going to head up to wine country in California for a week of golf and wine tasting before the big event.

We discover early on that Jack really has different goals than Miles does. All Miles wants to do is show his friend a good time. Jack has decided that Miles, with his first novel sitting with a small publisher who may not want to print it and his prescriptions for a pair of anxiety/depression medications really needs to ditch the pills and the psychiatrist and just get himself old fashioned sexed up. Additionally, Jack is looking for a final casual fling or two before his big wedding day, and really doesn’t want the depressed Miles screwing this up.

Miles, in addition to his various foibles, is an unrelenting wine snob. As the pair drive through parts of Napa Valley, it appears that Miles is well known at every vineyard in the area. If this leads you to think that Miles has a drinking problem, you’d be correct. He does tip more than is fair share of bottles, but insists on drinking only the best. We learn that he is desperate in many ways when he and Jack stop by Miles’s mother’s house. Excusing himself from dinner, he sneaks into her bedroom and finds her private safe, peeling off about $1,000 in hundreds and pocketing them before rejoining the table.

At one restaurant, they meet Maya (Virginia Madsen), who is quite the cutie and is also evidently recently divorced. She’s obviously taken with Miles, although he doesn’t seem to be able to get past his own divorce to notice. At another stop, the pair meet up with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who immediately clicks with Jack.

The obvious happens. Miles and Maya have a budding romance while Jack and Stephanie have good, old-fashioned lusty sex. It slips that Jack is a few days away from marriage, which cures Jack of nothing. It also slips that despite earlier comments, Miles’s book really isn’t “about to be published” but is only under consideration, and that’s hardly a sure thing.

The film is really about the downward trajectory of Miles’s life, his own personal failure to live up to what he wants out of life, and his self-immolation by wine bottle. Certainly there is the touch of the comic here, and many of the situations are really funny, as is a great deal of the dialogue. Smart dialogue is sometimes rare, and the conversations here are excellent, which is a large part of the charm.

Additionally, these are real characters instead of the broadly comic caricatures that frequently show up in Hollywood comedies. The characters are comic and tragic specifically because they are so completely real. Miles is smart and has done less with his life than he thinks he should have, and takes solace in knowing more about wine than anyone else he knows. Jack is a fun-loving goof, the guy who shrugs his shoulders and smiles when he gets his hand stuck in the cookie jar. Maya is sweet, open, and honest, and completely genuine.

There’s a lovely metaphor about halfway into the film. Maya asks Miles why he’s so into pinots. He answers that it’s a difficult grape to grow—they’re fragile and weak, and require constant care and attention, and only certain people are capable of doing anything with them. It’s unspoken, of course, but the brittle and fractured Miles is himself like this fragile grape, so ready to give up and die unless cared for. We get the same metaphor from Maya when she explains why she loves wine—about how it is a constantly living, evolving thing that changes constantly until it peaks, and starts its slow decline, not unlike a person. This too might be a metaphor for Miles, and the rest of the movie is there to determine if he is still evolving or if that decline has started.

Much of the success of Sideways comes from the actors playing these roles. I’m a big fan of Paul Giamatti. I think he’s made some really poor choices for film roles in the past, but he’s also made some great ones. He tends to fail when he takes broadly comic roles—actually, I think he fails when he plays anything broadly. Films like Big Fat Liar, Planet of the Apes, and Shoot ‘Em Up fail to play to his strengths. Where Giamatti is really successful is in roles like this one, or similar lovable loser roles in films like American Splendor and Winchell. He’s also excellent in straight dramatic roles. If he’d stick to roles like these, he might end up being typecast, but he’d always be worth watching.

I feel similarly about Thomas Haden Church. He works well in roles where he can be subtle and funny, and less well in films like Spider-Man 3. He’s certainly capable of comedy, and he’s good in comedy, but he’s a much better actor than he often gets credit for. Virginia Madsen shows here that she is capable of a performance with some heart and subtlety, and I like her in the role.

And then there’s Sandra Oh. She’s good here, and I can’t dispute it, but there’s something about her I find really disconcerting and weird. She always looks to me like she’s just smelled something unpleasant, like her companion has floated an air biscuit and she’s trying not to let anyone know. I feel the same way (actually, far more intensely) about Renee Zellweger, who looks either like she’s just left an unclean bathroom or she’s finished sucking on half a lemon. There’s something about these two actors that make my hand ball up into a fist. I’m not justifying this, and I realize it’s irrational. I can’t control it, but the first step to a problem like this is admitting that the problem exists, right?

Ultimately, Sideways works because it isn’t a traditional Hollywood movie and it avoids the traditional Hollywood ending. The ending is instead quite realistic, believable, and oddly uplifting. It also has one of the great tragic moments ever filmed, a moment best left to spoilers.


Miles has a prized bottle of wine that he had been saving for his 10th anniversary with his wife. When he realizes that she has not only remarried but is pregnant, and thus lost to him forever, he cracks the bottle and drinks it from a Styrofoam cup at a fast food restaurant. It’s so sad and painful, and yet perfectly human and believable.


This is a bittersweet film spiced with smart comedy, coming mostly from the realistic and entertaining dialogue between Miles and Jack. All of the elements of this film blend together into something bigger and better than any individual element. Like a great wine (at least from what I’ve been told—I can’t tell a $50 bottle from two-buck Chuck), the end product is far more than what the bottle appears to hold.

Why to watch The Big Lebowski: It’s funny. It’s really, really funny. And it’s the weirdest noir you’ll ever see.
Why not to watch: More language than you might expect.

Why to watch Sideways: It’s human, meaning it’s funny and tragic in equal doses.
Why not to watch: If you know nothing about wine, it will give you an oenological hangover.


  1. I've been meaning to see this for years, quite independently of the List. But I was always a bit worried that it wouldn't really live up to its reputation and might be a bit of a chore, especially if I wasn't in the mood for it. But it was on Sundance a few days ago, do I DVRed it and watched it this morning.

    What a great movie! I can see why it's on the List.

    And I'm ALWAYS in the mood for something as well-made and thoughtful as Sideways. (Even if I'm not particularly knowledgeable about wine.)

    I especially enjoyed the literature references. I got the joke about how the ending of Miles's novel is like a Robb-Grillet book! I've read a couple of books by Robb-Grillet. I'm very surprised that reading those books was ever useful in any way.

    1. I can see being worried about The Big Lebowski. It's one of those movies that has achieved such a unique cult status that if you talk to the wrong person, it can't possibly live up to they hype.

      Sideways is one of those movies that I don't want to watch often, but that I'm happy to have seen.