PSH is marvelous in “The Big Lebowski”

The Big Lebowski Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Big Lebowski (Gramercy Pictures)

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the ultimate lackey in The Coen Brothers’ gleefully silly stoner comedy.

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What’s a day in the life of Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman)? You work for a sham: though he may look like a wealthy, self-made entrepreneur, Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston) – your employer – has nothing but his self-image, without much actual money or success to back up his lavish trappings. As personal assistant to Lebowski, your job is to keep up appearances. Try to keep Lebowski’s trophy wife from doing anything too unseemly. Convince anyone and everyone that Jeffrey Lebowski really is a paragon of upper class respectability. Day in, day out, play the thankless part. 

Of course, no part was entirely thankless in the hands of Hoffman – least of all Brandt. It’s tough to think of another movie the actor appeared in as beloved as The Big Lebowski, Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterful, hilarious opus. We see Brandt through the eyes of the other Jeffrey Lebowski, or, as he’s better known, “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges). Both Lebowskis are bums, but at least The Dude doesn’t try to hide it. Brandt introduces these would-be twins after The Dude demands restitution for his rug, which was peed on by goons looking for the other Lebowski. As you probably know, that rug really tied the room together. 

Twenty-something years after release (and multiple viewings from this critic), The Big Lebowski remains as ridiculous and raucous as ever. What a great, silly movie – to be clear, that second adjective isn’t an insult. I won’t try to summarize the delightfully convoluted plot or rank it within the Coens’ prolific body of work: Joel and Ethan had made great silly movies before, and they would again. 

But you can’t let its laid-back charm fool you – everybody The Dude bumps into has a clearly defined point-of-view, the screenplay always pulling both its plot and comedy directly from its characters. Take Walter (John Goodman), a blustering vet stuck in his past, or Maude (Julianne Moore), a preposterous artist who speaks in over-the-top enunciations, or even Bunny (Tara Reid), that aforementioned trophy wife who may or may not have kidnapped herself. All these people are absurd, but they’re just as absurd as anyone else. 

The Dude floats between them all, eventually connecting the dots as he starts playing private investigator. I truly can’t think of anyone besides Bridges who could’ve played this part without making this character kind-of annoying. Because The Dude is annoying, or at least, he really should be. Has there ever been a bigger Baby Boomer? His car, his pop culture (those Creedence tapes!), the way he brags about writing “the original Port Huron statement” – he’s the living embodiment of an ethos that was outdated by the time Jimmy Carter was elected. 

It’s tough to think of another movie the actor appeared in as beloved as The Big Lebowski, Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterful, hilarious opus.

But Bridges never makes The Dude seem desperate. Maybe this hippie knows he’s a bit pathetic, and doesn’t care. Maybe The Dude is so content with his lifestyle that he genuinely doesn’t realize. People my age say “ok boomer” when old people demand you take them and the things they care about seriously – but The Dude’s trying not to take anything too seriously. He’s not entirely apathetic – he’s not a fuckin’ nihilist – but we recognize that his bowling league tournaments and the White Russians he drinks are pretty goofy. And at his core, he doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. The balance Bridges strikes between relaxed and dumb is both endearing and intoxicating, and really the fuel that pushes the film forward. 

The Dude’s not the only perfectly cast performer: the entire ensemble is a collection of beautiful marriages between actor and writing. Take Steve Buscemi, who eats endless shit (and a few In-and-Out burgers) as Donny. He’s not playing the most well-rounded character – Donny’s always being told to shut-up whenever he’s on-screen – but you still get a clear sense that this is a person, fitting into a dynamic that was established far before the events of the film, not just a punchline. 

The same goes for Brandt. Hoffman plays the closest we’ll see to a live-action Smithers to Lebowski’s Mr. Burns, bringing a suckling sincerity to the glorified butler. Hoffman’s role in the film is minor, only appearing in a handful of scenes, but he does a lot to flesh Brandt out. I love the way he lightly taps his arms against his sides to communicate his nervous tension, or how he forces himself into fits of laughter at Bunny’s propositions. The serious manner he calls The Dude “Dude” always makes me smile. These flourishes aren’t super show-ey, but they go a long way. 

Brandt just wants to do his job, a job he clearly takes a lot of pride in. Does Jeffrey Lebowski deserve his endless toil? Probably not, but The Big Lebowski is all about holding onto the meaning you find, without being a dick about it. Brandt clearly isn’t as enlightened as The Dude, but he’s living a similar philosophy, whether he knows it or not. Somehow, The Dude still abides to this day. 

The Big Lebowski Trailer:

Jonah Koslofsky
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