Jeff Bridges as The Dude

“Oh man, lodged WHERE?”

The Big Lebowski is not my favorite Coen brothers movie. I feel like many of its comic scenes miss their marks by miles. Combine that with irritating and unpleasant characters, like the pompous Maude Lebowski and the repulsive Jesus Quintana, and you have a movie that’s hard to take at times. Still, there are also many great comic scenes, and many lovable characters, not the least of which is the legend himself, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski.

The Dude is the only protagonist on this list of faves, and that’s because he’s the ultimate Coen everyman: easygoing, put-upon, and unimpressed. His friends? A gun-flashing vet and an empty-headed surfer. His enemies? A wheelchair-bound mogul and a pack of German nihilists. His acquaintances? A milquetoast landlord and a mysterious cowpoke called The Stranger. It’s crazy-ness, but that’s L.A., and these are the 90s. The counter-culture is dead, Vietnam forgotten, and deregulation all but embraced. The Dude’s a burned-out hippie in a sold-out city, living in a soulless time.

That’s okay, though, because like most of us, all The Dude wants is a smooth cocktail and a bowling lane. Oh, and a new rug, too.

The Dude’s mission to replace his urine-stained rug sends him from the ‘burbs of West Hollywood to the beaches of Malibu, encountering all manner of mixed nuts along the way. It’s notable that The Dude also happens into an eclectic symphony of music, one including lounge, hula, experimental vocalization, and techno-pop. Despite all this, though, The Dude never strays from home for long. At day’s close, he always comes shambling back to his buddies: Walter, Donny, Creedence, and Bob.

As The Stranger explains, it’s this simple constancy that turns The Dude into The Man For His Time and Place. Even as a parade of jackasses aims to make his life hell — his car and apartment are repeatedly ravaged until, by the end of the film, they’re unrecognizable — Duder chugs along, donning his sunglasses, shaking his head, and uttering a “Fuck it.” I suppose it’s also what makes his adventure such a huge cult favorite: nothing about The Dude’s life seems probable, and yet, we’ve all lived it.

George Clooney as Harry Pfarrer

“Can’t always wear a condom, right?”

Here’s a certainty for you: George Clooney, once known as the mom’s-fantasy pediatrician on the TV series ER, will instead be remembered — unquestionably, unarguably, and immovably — as an idiot.

Thank the Coens for this, as they sought Clooney out to play no fewer than four total dopes: Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Miles Massey in Intolerable Cruelty, Baird Whitlock in Hail, Caesar!, and Harry Pfarrer, my favorite of the four, in Burn After Reading.

Like the other idiots on his Coen resume, Pfarrer is genial, persuasive, and very concerned with his personal appearance. Unlike them, he’s obsessed with floors, philandering, and food allergies. When he’s not drawing ladies into his bed while his wife is out of town, he’s boasting about his work as a bodyguard, or constructing sex devices in his basement.

There’s no way to put a nice face on it; the man is simply weird. He might be a perfect example of a sociopath coasting by on charm and good looks.

Now, is that the sort of man who should be trusted with a big gun? Ask Brad Pitt, who also stars in this movie. As you might expect, this is no Ocean’s Eleven: the single exchange between the two men is wordless and brief. It always yanks a gasp from its audience, though, and Harry’s subsequent breakdown is both confusing and hilarious. Clooney may not be too proud of these roles (he famously proclaimed upon finishing this movie that “I’ve played my last idiot!”), but I think he should be grateful for them. Any good-lookin’ Joe can make a drama or romance; it takes a real actor to do funny. Good on ya, George, we love you and your idiocy.

Chelcie Ross as the Trapper

“She was often vexed with me. I seldom knew why.”

After Hail, Caesar! tanked, little was heard from the Coen brothers. For a frightful time, it seemed that they had slunk away forever, to join that gallery of failed directors who’d exhausted their goodwill.

Then Netflix, emboldened by the rising winds of streaming and Peak TV, put faith in the brothers once more. The result was The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology that almost feels like the Coens’ revenge. It’s a six-course feast of beautiful shots and bizarre events, extreme violence and playful dialogue, crusty villains and charming cowpokes. And, like all the best Coen movies, it is a meditation on the Struggle — with a capital S — to put a make on that thing that’s always remaking itself.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t have a little fun.

Buster is rife with Coen-isms, some of them traditional, others esoteric. There’s florid, extensive speech that just kisses the listening ear. There are cold, oblique stabs at the Coens’ staunchest critics. There’s an errant, noisy dog who’s more trouble than he’s worth, and there’s a slow, sad nod to the success of stupid entertainment.

Then there’s the loudmouth: a hairy, ‘coon-hatted man known only as the Trapper. The story is The Mortal Remains: the final, and most mysterious of Buster‘s tales. It plays like a particularly interesting episode of The Twilight Zone. You get five individuals on a long coach trip, one of them the Trapper, who are drawn into an impassioned philosophical discussion. That’s about the size of the whole episode, but that’s all the Coens need to weave many strange and hilarious situations. Indeed, the whole blowup begins with an interminable speech from our feculent friend.

Like Mr. Mohra, the murmuring witness from Fargo, the Trapper tells his tale like a man hurling himself from a cliff, heedless of concerns like points or meaning. Yet, it’s all so very rich: just a minute of his yammering paints years of the man’s life. Through his words, you feel the loneliness, the rejection, and the disgust with mankind that grow out of a life spent in the wild. To him, human beings are really no different from ferrets. He even lifts a romantic anecdote — a period of years spent with a native woman who doesn’t understand English — as further proof of this. After all, the sounds she made during lovemaking weren’t all that different from those an animal would utter.

The other coach riders can barely contain their irritation. This trapper simply won’t shut up — until he does, and the sudden silence is as funny as the speech itself. It bothers me that Buster will never get the audience it truly deserves, as moments like this alone outshine most anything else in theaters right now. Hurry, Netflix, hurry, and get our boys back on the trail! We’d be lost in Fort Morgan without them.

You Won’t See the Doctor Now

It’s some kind of miracle. The return of one beloved 90s Comedy Central series seemed unlikely enough, so two should leave us beatific. Unfortunately, the ravages of the road leave skids and scars too deep and dark to ignore. Still, it’s nice to reconnect with old friends, even if it’s impossible to make eye contact with them.

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Back in 1995, the golden days of stand-up comedy, mellow fellow Jonathan Katz developed an unusual animated series about a put-upon psychologist who counseled comedians. In his off time, he joked with his barfly buddies, sparred with his bitchy receptionist, and slowly lost his grip on his underachieving son.

Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist was a work of introverted inspiration, with an easy spirit and a peculiar visual style. Called “Squigglevision,” this computer-drawn technique placed simple, colorful figures against grayscale backgrounds. The characters were presented in static poses, but with three or four slightly different images, so they seemed in a perpetual state of quivering tension. The look was so distinctive that the animation studio, Soup2Nuts, employed it in other series like Home Movies and Science Court as a sort of hallmark.

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The audiobook website Audible has released a fifteener — a series of fifteen episodes of fifteen minutes each. I invented the word, shut up — of all-new Dr. Katz episodes. Many of the guest comedians are returning champions, such as Ray Romano, Dom Irrera, and Janeane Garofalo, but there are a few newcomers. Tom Papa and “Weird Al” Yankovic are the ones who caught my attention, since I share their individualist worldview, and I highly recommend their episodes.

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As you probably guessed from the website that sells them (and the subtitle “Audio Files”), these are basically radio shows. No animation here. You’re meant to listen to these on the drive to work and imagine. They’re also relatively void of plot, and focus on the therapy sessions (read: comedy bits) of their guests. That’s a great loss, since the clever conversations between Katz and friends were the real heart of the original show.

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My absolute favorite scenes were the ones between Katz and his adult child Ben, voiced by Adult Swim superstar H. Jon Benjamin. These scenes were pure gold, as they presented a believable father/son relationship based on love and humor, but strained with the expectations of social responsibility.

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Sadly, Ben plays only a minor role in The Audio Files, and he only seems to appear in phone conversations. Considering Benjamin’s busy voice-acting schedule, this might have been due to scheduling difficulties, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. What’s more, age has lied hard on the voices of both actors, and their weakened efforts are a little sad to listen to.

To cover for Ben, we get Erica Rhodes playing the estranged sister of snarky secretary Laura. We get scenes of the two gals reconnecting, but I find their babyish voices grating, and honestly, I prefer not knowing too much about Laura. Her efforts to keep our therapist hero at arm’s length was a major part of her character, and getting in close to her doesn’t feel right.

What’s more, the lack of visuals removes some of the humor of the show, as the animators accompanied the confessional anecdotes with funny imagery. They were especially effective with the jokes of Dom Irrera and Mitch Hedberg, and I miss it.

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I realize that picking at this show isn’t quite fair. It’s a generous revival, and I’m grateful that it exists. I’m hoping it continues, so long as it draws its focus away from Laura and Erica, and back towards Ben and Katz. Their chemistry is a treasure, and it belongs in any spotlight it can find.

Top Non-Cartoons: Innerspace

This may be a bit on-the-nose, what with Innerspace being a Joe Dante film, starring Martin Short, and featuring a cameo by Chuck Jones. Still, I think it deserves recognition as a Non-Cartoon, if only because we just don’t see a lot of movies that are this damn crazy anymore, and certainly not done this well.

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Innerspace came out in 1987, right around the time I was heavy into game-books like Choose Your Own Adventure. I had recently picked up Explorer Destination: Brain at my school’s Book Fair and read it to tatters. I think I learned more about human biology from that silly little book than I did from any science class.

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Anyway, so jazzed was I about adventures in human anatomy that Innerspace grabbed me from its first trailer. It had informed me of the basic plot: a miniaturized pilot (Dennis Quaid) gets injected into the body of an everyman (Short), who seeks the aid of the pilot’s girlfriend (Meg Ryan) to get him out. It sounds like a decent sci-fi setup, even if it’s one that’s been done before. One thing I’ve learned, however, is that when you go into a Joe Dante picture, you never get quite what you expect.

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The film has all the elements of a sci-fi thriller, but they’re all bent into weird angles. Short’s everyman, Jack, is a neurotic mess who has nightmares about grumpy ladies attacking him at his cashier job. Quaid’s heroic pilot, Tuck, is a cocky drunk who smacks himself for a quick psych. When Tuck’s miniaturization experiment is raided by thieves, the lead scientist, Ozzy, escapes by zipping down a highway on a ten-speed. He tries to vanish into the crowd at a mall, but one of the bad guys shoots him with a gun hidden in his prosthetic hand. Ozzy saves Tuck by injecting him into Short’s ass-cheek, and then proceeds to bleed out while surrounded by performers wearing animal costumes.

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As you can see, this movie’s on the edge of Goofytown, and it doesn’t stop at the outskirts. Tuck eventually makes contact with Jack in a series of hilarious and awkward scenes that leave Jack wondering if he’s been possessed. Jack meets Ryan’s character, Lydia, who’s not only Tuck’s girlfriend, but an investigative reporter looking into the aforementioned tech thieves, and promptly falls in love with her. The two work together to trap a fence called The Cowboy (Robert Picardo), an Eastern European who’s about as far from a real cowboy as anyone can be. All the while, Jack has to avoid telling Lydia the truth about Tuck, simply because Tuck’s embarrassed about being so tiny.

Things just keep building like this, taking turn after kooky turn, until Tuck is dueling a cyborg over an ocean of bubbling stomach acid, while Jack and Lydia fly down busy roads in an out-of-control car, battling arms dealers who are the size of children.

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Don’t ask me how it all works. I’m just not that smart. I’m sure the amazing special effects help. The visuals from inside Jack’s body are quite impressive, even by today’s standards. Tuck starts his journey in Jack’s buttocks (the fat cells are really just balloons), and using the bloodstream like a highway, he visits some very real-looking eyes, inner ears, lungs, and heart valves. Using slow motion and clever sound effects, Dante makes the human body into a majestic and scary place.

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More important than the visuals, though, are the performances. Martin Short finds real  sympathy as Jack, even when he goes full screwball. Short can be grating in other films, but I think he’s palatable here because his overacting seems appropriate for the extreme situations he’s put in. He’s also grounded by Tuck, a charming rogue who’s been forced into near-powerlessness. Quaid spends most of the movie scrunched in a blinky, buttony computer console, yet he manages to project great energy. The two actors share nearly no screen time, but they somehow play off each other, with powerful and funny results. Innerspace pulls off many great feats, but making us care about its leads, in the midst of its insane plot, is by far its greatest one.

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There are so many crazy little details and characters that make Innerspace memorable that it’d do no good to try and list them all. The movie is a mural of silliness, painted corner-to-corner with colorful characters and wacky moments. A lot of it is corny, but a lot of it is inspired, and there’s an innocence to its tone and aesthetic that’s missing from comedies today. The more I watch it, the more I lament that we may never see a movie quite like it again.

If Innerspace were to be animated, it’d have to be done by Madhouse, the Japanese studio that brought us the glorious Stink Bomb. That cartoon was another tale of science gone wrong, and it also featured a bit of a dope at its center, so the parallels are there. While I doubt that even their greatest wizards could channel Dante’s sly directing style, I’m sure they could add a voltage to the film that would turn it into something special.

It’d sure be tough to replace that face-changing scene, though. I think animating that part would only make it look worse!

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