In Better Late Than Never, A.V. Club writers attempt to fill the gaps in their overall pop culture knowledge and experience.
For whatever reason, I’ve just never gotten around to watching The Big Lebowski—which I admit is odd. I know about it, of course: White Russians. Bowling. Something about a rug. And I like the Coen brothers and Jeff Bridges a lot. I also have a friend who’s seen it so many times and loves it so much that he’s saved it to his laptop, so that whenever he has to fly, he’ll just watch The Big Lebowski again. But 20 years after its release on March 6, 1998, it remained one of those movies that everyone’s seen but me. Until now. So I hung out with my friend and watched the movie while drinking what turns out to be the perfect number of White Russians to get into the Big Lebowski mind-set (my total: two).
Our staff film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky told me he would be interested in my take on The Big Lebowski because of my love of classic film noir. And he’s right: What I instantly loved about the film was the way the Coens did, in fact, turn the Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade character inside out. Instead of a hardened, bitter, savvy detective, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Bridges) is a lazy, clueless, accidental gumshoe—a guy with good intentions who gets dragged into working a case against his will.
The Big Lebowski actually starts more like a Western, a tumbleweed surreally traveling the streets of Los Angeles (home of Marlowe and Spade), while Sam Elliott’s voice-over tells us all about The Dude:
I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about The Dude here. Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s The Dude, in Los Angeles.
Whereas Marlowe and Spade would have been drawn into their time and place by the murder of a partner or the need to settle a debt to a long-lost friend, The Dude has smaller concerns. He’s just out to replace a rug that “tied the whole room together,” urinated on by some thugs who mistake him for the other Lebowski of the title, whose young bride, Bunny, owes some money to her old porn producer, Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara).
The whole kidnapping plot is a bit complicated, but The Big Lebowski isn’t about solving the mystery, really. It’s more about spending time with The Dude and the characters he surrounds himself with. Most of the film takes place at a bowling alley, where The Dude engages in his only regular activity with his teammates, Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi). Walter is an unhinged, violence-prone vet who never quite got over Vietnam, while Donny is an ex-surfer who gets yelled at a lot. Throughout the film, Walter and The Dude are in moral conflict: Walter is reactive and constantly makes the wrong decision; The Dude strives to do the right thing, even when he’s uncertain about what that might be. When Walter tries to keep Bunny’s ransom money, it’s The Dude who pleads, “They’re going to kill that poor woman.” Meanwhile, Donny’s there as the hapless third (“the lukewarm water,” This Is Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls would say), often bearing the brunt of the others’ anger and good for getting strikes, but not much else.
I was delighted—then immediately sad—to see Philip Seymour Hoffman as Brandt. As usual, he fades instantly into his role as the uptight and unfailingly polite secretary to the Big Lebowski, quickly adapting to calling The Dude “Dude,” because that’s what the man prefers. And I was a bit shocked to see Tara Reid, and remember that she had a much more prominent career before those Sharknado movies.
As Lebowski’s daughter, Maude, Julianne Moore is a classic femme fatale—as much a send-up of a 1940s black-and-white heroine as Jennifer Jason Leigh was in the Coens’ Hudsucker Proxy. It’s typical for a gumshoe detective like Marlowe to be a bit wowed by an intimidating scion (think Lauren Bacall’s Vivian in The Big Sleep), and Moore sternly embraces the easy challenge of steamrolling over The Dude. In their scene in bed—she enlists The Dude’s help in getting pregnant—she also elicits our first real information about how The Dude became The Dude, a history of ’60s activism and working as a roadie for Metallica (“bunch of assholes”).
It’s with Maude that The Dude also reaches the perfect balance of drugs and alcohol to realize he’s been set up—that Lebowski was just hoping the kidnappers would kill his wife for him. Again, it’s a plot that’s overtly and perhaps unnecessarily complex, crowded with almost nothing but dead ends and red herrings: Treehorn. A gang of nihilists. A Volkswagen-driving investigator who identifies The Dude as a “Brother Shamus” (another ’40s noir term). But unlike a more straightforward mystery, such as Hail Caesar!, The Big Lebowski’s surrealism gives us something much more satisfying. The Coens’ detached homage to Raymond Chandler also tosses in some Hitchcock (The Dude’s scene in a Malibu police station is markedly similar to one involving Cary Grant in North By Northwest, after he’s also drugged and tossed out of a fancy home). Like Hail Caesar!, it also riffs on Busby Berkeley with a bananas dream sequence, where Maude turns up in a Viking opera costume. You can search for meaning in all this or simply go along for the ride.
That left a few critics understandably confused upon The Big Lebowski’s release in 1998, with the initial reaction being rather mixed. Like many cult films, Lebowski has only become iconic over time. It’s difficult to imagine my own reaction if I’d seen it on opening weekend, with nothing but a few film reviews to guide me. I’d like to think that my affection for detective stories, the Coens, and Jeff Bridges (who starred in one of my all-time favorite movies, The Last Picture Show) ultimately would have led me to gravitate toward The Big Lebowski, just as I am now. But it’s hard to separate my opinion of the film from the cult that now surrounds it.
Because of the intensity of that cult, it’s tempting to look at everything in The Big Lebowski from at least seven different angles. Why is John Turturro’s character pointedly named Jesus, for example? Is The Dude’s iconic comeback to Jesus—“Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man”—and his zen, Buddha-like attitude to life meant to be a rejoinder to Jesus’ antagonistic, more rules-based approach (“Nobody fucks with the Jesus”)? And if so, is The Dude dismissing the ritualistic, over-accessorized Jesus meant to be a snub of organized religion? There’s a through-line of philosophy in the entire film, with Walter dropping references to everyone from Lenin to Theodor Herzl—and surely it’s no coincidence that nihilists are the villains. The Dude may not believe in much himself, other than bowling and trying not to hurt people, but even those tenets are better than believing in nothing. Or believing you’re right, even when you’re perpetually shown to be wrong, like Walter. It’s no wonder some fans have adopted The Tao Of The Dude as a way of life.
Sam Elliott’s The Stranger starts off by saying that The Dude isn’t a hero, but he wound up becoming one to so many movie fans. Then the Big Lebowski asks The Dude what makes a man: “Is it being prepared to do the right thing, no matter the cost?” At almost every turn, The Dude tries to do that, with whatever meager means are available. The Dude completely lacks the sins of vanity (he leaves the house in his bathrobe); or pride (the first time we see him, he’s writing a check for 69 cents); or anger, even when his car gets destroyed. His only real vice—beyond his weed and White Russians—is swearing, which the omniscient Stranger suggests he ease up on. We envy The Dude for knowing himself, for escaping the need to conform, and for rejecting mainstream society for the little one that grows around him. I can’t imagine how much more chill my life would have been if I’d been introduced to him earlier.