A World of Pain: Tall Tales from the Coen Brothers

With Inside Llewyn Davis hitting theatres this month, the cineasts at TIFF found time to roll out a retrospective of some of the best flicks in the Coen brothers canon. From early works like Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing to their breakout smash Fargo to more recent classics like No Country For Old Men, they’ve put together a great program showcasing the Coens’ style and dedication to story and craft (however loopy). This Friday, December 13th they’re showing one of the Coens’ most loved movies, The Big Lebowski. Next week, TIFF-goers can catch A Serious Man, less appreciated, but just as superb. Made over ten years apart, these two films mirror each other in unexpected ways. Get ready to enter a very funny world of pain, after the jump.

The Dude (Jeff Bridges) and Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) in The Big Lebowski

A sort of demented, endlessly digressive Chinatown for stoners, The Big Lebowski has grown into a Top 10 cult film. It’s amusing to recall that people didn’t quite know what to make of its outlandish characters and circuitous plot when it came out in 1998. Now there are Lebowski festivals and conventions, even a fan club called the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers (in a nod to the millionaire Lebowski’s youth group mentioned in the film). Jeff Bridges is of course The Dude, his Dudeness, the Duder, or El Duderino, “if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.” Lazy, laconic, spliffed-out and blissed-out, The Dude is one Jeff Lebowski, an unemployed bowler-philosopher living on the fringes of Los Angeles. Bridges is mesmerizing in a narcoleptic kind of way, shuffling blithely through life with his bowling buddies Walter Sobchak, an indelible John Goodman delivering the hopped up monologues of one messed up Viet Nam vet, and Donny, played with hapless density by Steve Buscemi. Their chief rival in the lanes is Jesus Quintana, a flashy Hispanic pedophile given slimy menace by John Turturro. When a pair of hoods crash The Dude’s pad, threatening him for money and peeing on his rug, he’s drawn into an ever stranger series of goings-on. Seems the thugs have mistaken him for his alternate namesake, an actual wealthy Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston) also living in the erstwhile city of angels. Seeking restitution for his ruined rug (“it really completes the room”), The Dude goes in search of the other Lebowski, and soon finds himself caught up in the kidnapping of that Lebowski’s wife Bunny (Tara Reid) by a group of German nihilists. Throw in Julianne Moore as Lebowski the Richer’s art-addled daughter and pseudo femme fatale, and Sam Elliott as the droopy moustached, drawling cowboy narrator, and you’ve got yourself a meandering neon nineties noir for the ages. Rich in Raymond Chandleresque settings and characters, it’s worth remembering that the 40s noir classic The Big Sleep never made much sense either. The Big Lebowski is just much more colourful.

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) can’t catch a break in A Serious Man

A Serious Man from 2009 is on the face of it a very different film. Ostensibly a modern retelling of the biblical trials of Job, it’s the most directly Jewish film the Coens have made. The opening prologue sets the tone immediately. Entirely in subtitled Yiddish, we’re treated to a brief, oddly fantastic yarn. An elderly husband returns home to his wife in a nineteenth century Polish stetl. He tells her about meeting a man she knows on the road; she assures him that man passed away years ago, and he’s met a dybbuk, a kind of evil spirit that possesses the dead. The dybbuk arrives at their door, as the husband had invited him back for soup. Accusations fly, the wife plunges a knife into the stranger’s chest, and he departs weakly into the snowy night. Was he a dybbuk, or just a man? We don’t know, but either way, it can only be terrible luck. The main film then picks up in 1967 in a suburban Jewish enclave in Minnesota, where the Coens themselves grew up. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a mild-mannered mathematics professor whose life is about to come apart at the seams. His distant wife (Sari Lennick) reveals her affair with an unctuous friend (Fred Melamed), his kids are caught up in the petty theft, avoidance and weed-smoking typical of teens, and his couch-surfing brother (Richard Kind) has long overstayed his welcome, perpetually occupying the bathroom to drain a sebaceous cyst. Add to that troubled domestic stew a failing foreign student who first tries to bribe Larry for a passing grade, then threatens to sue, while Larry’s university tenure review fast approaches. Kicked out of his own home and forced to stay at the local Jolly Roger Hotel, eyeing the prospects of an expensive divorce, the screws keep tightening on Larry. Not one to profess a strong religious faith, he’s always trusted the mental proofs of mathematics, but he finds himself turning to his community rabbis for support. His placid middle-class life has been uprooted. Confronted with ever escalating senseless suffering, what can the purpose of God, or Hashem, as they say in the film, possibly be? The rabbis never have much insight to offer either, except maybe do good unto others (“It couldn’t hurt?”). Black joke piles on top of black joke, to a jaw-droppingly abrupt ending that’s spectacularly, bleakly hilarious, if you see life as a largely hopeless struggle to wrest meaning from the pointlessness of it all. If you don’t, you’ll probably think it’s kind of awful.

The Coens have steadfastly resisted that there’s any larger meaning to their work. They see themselves as story-tellers, no more, no less, and it’s certainly true that in that they are consummate craftsmen. But The Dude and Larry Gopnik are two faces of a well-worn coin. They are the victims of circumstance, always searching for patterns of meaning. And meaning could be there, but whether it is or not is unknowable. The Dude suffers through his trials as an unflappable stoner hero. He stands by his friends, however flawed they are, and solves the mystery of the kidnapping, but not without cost. Larry for his part is a weaker man. His logical intellect can’t allow for the possible comfort of faith, and ultimately even his own morals are undermined with dreadful retribution looming. Critics ascribe a coldness to the Coens, that they put their protagonists through the wringer for shallow laughs or senseless dramatic effect. In The Big Lebowski, when one of the Germans complains the turn of events isn’t fair, Walter erupts “Fair? Who’s the fucking nihilist around here?” When we first meet Larry in his classroom, he’s writing out the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s cat, how we can’t know if a cat in a box is alive or dead. Like the mystery of the dybbuk at the movie’s beginning, certain facts or truths can’t be ascertained. But actions have consequences, as Larry observes to his disgruntled student, and morals matter, too. Sometimes things just happen, and it’s how we react that really matters. Always flinching and scuttling away from confrontation, Larry ultimately caves, but that oblivious scamp The Dude? The Dude abides…

The Big Lebowski appears at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, December 13th at 8:45pm. A Serious Man screens on Tuesday, December 17th at 8:45pm. You can find ticket information and the rest of the Coen brothers program here.

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