Children who are men

Cinefile is a random reference guide that explores the vast catalogue of films available on Netflix instant viewing, with special emphasis on the interesting, the unusual, and the ones that got left behind. Consider Starman and The Big Lebowski. Here are two films with the always intriguing Jeff Bridges that offer vastly different performances, yet, amazingly, both fall under a sub-genre of cinema I like to call the “idiot man-child.”

Starman (1984) is an unusual film for both Jeff Bridges and its director, John Carpenter. Most of Carpenter’s films have a tongue-in-cheek quality that meshes perfectly with the ironic deadpan of Kurt Russell, his normal muse. In this film, however, Carpenter strives for a sincere romantic story about a space alien who crash lands on Earth. The alien takes on the appearance of someone he sees in a photo, a man who just happens to be the deceased husband of the grieving widow who he enlists to help him find his way back to his spaceship. This sets up a most unlikely romance. Bridges plays the alien man-child perfectly, like an outsider who isn’t accustomed to these crazy ways of Earth. He’s simultaneously sincere, robotic, and reptilian. For his effort, Bridges was nominated for an Academy Award. Carpenter is slightly out of his element here, but Bridges’performance helps create some occasional, unexpected magic.

A decade and several pounds later, Bridges brings weed-infused wisdom to the idiot man-child in his career-turning performance in The Big Lebowski (1998). While most of the Coen brothers’ movies are dominated by creative but rigid concepts of dialect, Bridges creates a unique voice in this film that isn’t beholden to a certain region or time. As The Dude, Bridges plays a stoner “detective” who gets pulled into a quagmire of a story involving a kidnapping, mistaken identity, and a urine-soaked missing rug. The Big Lebowski brilliantly inverts and deflates all the trappings of a classical film noir. It is inspired, to some degree, by Bogart’s classic noir The Big Sleep, in that the story famously doesn’t make much sense. A key element to The Big Lebowski is confusion, be it in the development of the plot or in the constant miscommunication between the characters. The idiot man-child archetype is as old as cinema itself; through these two films, Bridges offers his brilliance.

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