The Big Lebowski (1998)
Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore
I wrote a good bit about how much I enjoy the Coen Brothers in general when I was writing about Barton Fink last month, so I’ll keep this post more limited directly to The Big Lebowski. However, I will say that the movie’s immense mainstream popularity undercuts the fact that it’s one of the brothers’ deepest dives into filmic nostalgia. Lebowski is a celebration of old Hollywood, a deconstruction of the detective genre and film noir mode of storytelling, with shout outs to classical Hollywood pictures throughout. The nuances of the film are probably overshadowed for a lot of audiences by the story of what has become one of the classic characters in all of cinema. The Big Lebowski is a film that is equally as quotable as it is esoteric, a film with many layers, and standing tall above them all is Jeff Daniels’s iconic portrayal of Jeffrey Lebowski, the Dude, an armchair philosopher and hero for the slacker generation, one of God’s own prototypes, too weird to live and too rare to die, out there taking it easy for all us sinners.
For those who may have not seen the film yet, The Big Lebowski centers on a case of mistaken identity, in which The Dude (Bridges) is mistaken for the identically-named Jeffrey Lebowski (the titular Big Lebowski, played by David Huddleston) an aging millionaire whose trophy wife, Bunny (Tara Reid), owes money all over town, including to pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) who sends two thugs to beat the money out of The Dude. When The Dude fails to produce any money, pointing out that it’s fairly obvious a millionaire would not live in his tiny one bedroom apartment, one of the thugs proceeds to pee on The Dude’s rug. The Dude seeks out The Big Lebowski hoping for recompense for the soiled rug, which really tied the room together, and this sets the events of the plot into motion. After their initial meeting, The Big Lebowski contacts The Dude, telling him that Bunny has been kidnapped, and he needs The Dude to get her back. In turn, The Dude enlists the help of his buddies Walter Sobchak (Goodman) and Donny Kerabatsos (Buscemi), who are happy to help out in between games of bowling. Along the way, The Dude encounters German nihilists, a militant feminist artist who wants him for his seed, and is forced to abide countless acts of aggression. The film takes a lot of its cues from The Big Sleep, a famously inscrutable noir, and The Big Lebowski certainly doesn’t disappoint when it comes to weaving a tangled narrative web of deceit and double cross.
If that narrative seems somewhat complicated, that’s because it is. Raymond Chandler, who wrote the novel upon which The Big Sleep is based on, famously said that even he wasn’t sure who committed one of the murders in his book. The Coens take this idea and run with it in Lebowski, creating a stylized, contemporary noir in which the detective is constantly travelling through the world in a fog, unsure of which side of each uneasy alliance he finds himself at any given moment. The film is packed with subtle allusions to the films of the 1940s, containing oblique references to Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, but also to 42nd Street and other Busby Berkeley musicals. As much as they are filmmakers, the Coens are also film historians, with their films often referencing favorite classic filmmakers such as Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder. All of their films dabble in this kind of pastiche, using film references as a shorthand language, but Lebowski is probably the most overt. As in Barton Fink, the Coens suture a fantastical version of Hollywood onto an actual time and place, in this case the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War. In both films, the real life setting only serves as an anchor, and the action of the film is largely contained in its own world. The characters in the films occasionally reference actual events, but the Coens are largely free to create a universe of their own definition, and in The Big Lebowski, that universe is heavily filtered through the experience of American cinema of the 1940s.
Of course, this being a Coen Brothers film, those influences are scattered throughout The Big Lebowski, but they’re turned on their head, repurposed for a new generation and skewed in the process. The film uses many of the familiar tropes of the noir. It offers up two femmes fatales in Bunny and in The Big Lebowski’s daughter, Maude (Moore). It’s Bunny’s disappearance that kickstarts the film, but Maude is certainly the more interesting character. She appears halfway through the film, introducing herself to the dude by having her henchmen knock him out and take the rug that he had chosen to replace his originally soiled rug. She asserts that her interest is in preserving the Lebowski Foundation’s money, one million dollars of which her father has put up as ransom money for his missing wife. However, in classic femme fatale fashion, Maude’s motives are more duplicitous than they might seem on the surface. Her real interest in The Dude is procreative. While most classic femme fatales attempt to ensnare the detective using their sexuality, Maude enlists the Dude to the case before seducing him. After gaining The Dude’s trust, Maude beds him and makes known her desire to have a child with a man who will have no interest in raising it, or in being a partner to her. She’s fingered The Dude as just the deadbeat for the job, interested in him not for his bravado or his cunning, but for his biological ability to help her conceive. While I do think that a lot of classic femmes fatales could be seen as feminist characters, or at least female characters with agency in an era during which there weren’t so many such roles, I think that Maude’s overall character in Lebowski very deliberately marks her as a feminist. The shift in power dynamics marks one of the ways that the Coens are playing with the tropes of the noir mode.
Another modal shift takes place in the film’s style. Though its narrative is decidedly noir-influenced, the film’s visual style rarely quotes from film noir. They had already explored the visual aesthetic of noir in their debut Blood Simple and would return to the genre with a very explicitly noir-influenced aesthetic in The Man Who Wasn’t There, but The Big Lebowski is a much brighter, color-saturated film. Its hallmark visual sequence, the dream sequence that The Dude experiences after being drugged at Jackie Treehorn’s party, is an homage to the classic Hollywood musicals of the 1930s and 40s. The sequence is choreographed just like a Busby Berkeley musical number, with The Dude descending a black-and-white checked staircase to be greeted by a dozen beautiful dancers with tiaras made of bowling pins. He shares a dance with Maude and then floats down a bowling lane through the straddled legs of the dancers. The dream devolves into a nightmare after The Dude crashes through the pins at the end of the lane and cascades into blackness where he meets the three German nihilists, who are wearing red form-fitting suits, and who chase him through the nothingness with oversized scissors, presumably hoping to “cut off his johnson.” While this sequence marks just the most striking departure from the established visual style of noir, the film’s style overall is a bit more dreamy and subjective than a typical noir. That mode established the use of evocative chiaroscuro lighting and adopted the subjectivity of the canted angle, but the Los Angeles of Lebowski is characterized by bright lights, loud noises, and a slow-moving camera that often takes in the world through a gauzy filter.
The biggest departure of the film from a traditional noir detective story, of course, is in the character of The Dude. The prototypical noir detective is personified by Humphrey Bogart: serious, square-jawed, able to take and deliver a punch. The Dude is decidedly none of these things. He is a self-described pacifist who only gets caught up in this whole mess through a case of mistaken identity and a desire to get back a rug that really tied the room together. The Dude trades in Bogart’s ever-present scotch and cigarette for a white russian and a joint. He has reached a level of Zen that Bogart’s restless men of action could never hope to achieve. He treats the whole caper involving Bunny, the nihilists, his missing rug, and his perpetually battered car, as a cosmic inconvenience rather than a case to be solved or a mission to accomplish. The Dude would rather be left alone to listen to his tapes and bowl in the next round robin. If Bogart was the masculine ideal for a post-war generation, then Bridges’s performance as The Dude served as an inspiration and a rallying point for a certain type of counter cultural slacker in the late 90s and early 2000s. He is the Coens most enduring and endearing creation.
I first watched Lebowski around 1999 or 2000, a couple of years after it was released in theaters. I was instantly taken in by the characters and the dialogue. The film is simply hilarious and Bridges, Goodman, and Buscemi have unbelievable chemistry as The Dude, Walter, and Donny. Their lines are delivered lightning quick, one on top of the other, just like the conversation of real-life friends who know each other intimately. The film is endlessly quotable, with many of its turns of phrase having entered the cultural lexicon, but it is so densely written that it’s also easy to miss off-the-cuff lines on the first couple of viewings. The humor and the characters were what initially drew me into Lebowski. The interplay between Walter and Donny was so funny, and The Dude was one of the coolest characters I’d yet to encounter. Over time and additional viewings, I found new things to enjoy about The Big Lebowski and if you had asked me 15, or even ten years ago, it might have ranked up in my favorite movies of all time. It isn’t up there for me anymore, but it’s still a film that I love and probably one that I watch more frequently than some that might be in my “top ten favorite” films.
Though it started out as a cult film, the influence of Lebowski has spread far into the mainstream. As I mentioned, many of its lines have become instantly recognizable lingo, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone in 2017 who hasn’t seen the film. Bridges’s performance is now iconic, and many people would probably most readily associate Goodman with his portrayal of the bombastic, Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak. Screenings of the film have taken on a Rocky Horror Picture Show sort of tenor, with audiences often attending in costume and bringing props with them. An entire religion has sprung up centered on The Dude as a spiritual figure, with proponents of Dudeism embracing The Dude’s laissez-faire attitude and rebel shrug. Over the last 20 years, The Big Lebowski has graduated from film to full blown cultural phenomenon and while I’m happy that a great film is getting the attention and fanfare that it deserves, I would still rather appreciate it as a film text, devoid of any of the larger cultural trappings that it has come to be associated with. As a progressively-leaning, cannabis-advocating bartender who can often be found wearing a robe until mid-afternoon, and who is trying his hardest to take a “first do no harm” approach to life, I understand that the Dudeist lifestyle is probably perfectly suited to me. However, I still watch The Big Lebowski once or twice a year because it is a film that I really love, not because I hope to emulate its style or glean life wisdom from it. It never fails to make me laugh and pick up my spirits, and every time I watch it I seem to find some new little homage or hear a throwaway line that I had forgotten about. I can understand why someone might choose The Big Lebowski as the cultural artifact upon which they model their personal ethos, but even for those who choose to just enjoy it as a film, it’s an undeniable classic.