The cover of The Dude And The Zen Master shows a photograph of the authors playfully pressing their foreheads together, suggesting that though they have something deep and meaningful to impart, they want to reassure prospective padawans that their teaching method will be fun, lighthearted, and enchantingly kooky. One of them has gray-streaked hair tied in a skimpy ponytail, and the other has gray-streaked hair that ought to be. Recently, there’s been a surfeit of celebrity memoirs that read like transcriptions from tape-recorded ramblings, in some cases (such as Billy Bob Thornton’s The Billy Bob Tapes) because that’s what they were. The Dude And The Zen Master isn’t technically a celebrity memoir, but the only reason a publisher would want it is because one of those gray-haired guys happens to be Jeff Bridges.
The book is a dialogue between Bridges and Zen Buddhist and social activist Bernie Glassman. Underlying the whole project, and serving as its commercial hook, is the idea that Bridges himself is a living example of Zen principles, thanks to his having played the Dude in The Big Lebowski. For some of his fans, enduring the pompous bullshit that’s been shoveled about how the Dude is a figure of spiritual transcendence amounts to eating broccoli, and Bridges keeps up the tradition in this book: “I think the Dude is an example of someone who doesn’t feel the need to achieve something. He likes lying in the bathtub drinking his White Russians with the whale music on. He’s just taking it easy, taking it the way it is. There’s a lot of generosity in that, you know?”
As Lloyd Bridges’ son and Beau Bridges’ kid brother, Jeff Bridges entered the business as part of a Hollywood dynasty. He’s been a much-sought-after actor since he was 21, and a frequent Academy Award nominee, with one Best Actor win in 2010 for Crazy Heart. Yet he has a history of disappearing into his roles in a way that looks effortless and makes him seem egoless. This book might have benefited from a little more ego—anything to shake it up. In spite of its conversational format, it’s the dullest of the recent spate of published babble-fests, because Bridges and Glassman complement each other in a way that guarantees neither will challenge or bring the other out. They’re warm and cool and they agree on everything, so they seem extremely impressed with each other. Reading their frictionless exchanges is like watching someone blow kisses at himself in the mirror.
Bridges provides a few minor insights into his creative process, and it’s surprising (and oddly inspiring) when he says that he was “a pouting asshole” for the first three years of his 35-year marriage. But whenever the conversation threatens to get interesting, it soon relapses into the authors comparing notes on how bad they feel about not being able to respond to all their fan mail, or doing a full exegesis on the implications of the Lebowskian phrase “The Dude is not in.” Slate critic David Edelstein, reviewing Albert Brooks’ The Muse, accused Bridges of “acting with his tan.” This book reads as if Bridges’ tan wrote it.