Why do so many people love The Big Lebowski?
The Big Lebowski is the Coen brothers’ funniest movie, a smart, feel-good comedy. While all the Coen’s movies feature a dry sense of humor, usually the violence or neo-noir elements dominate and prevent the viewer from relaxing enough to enjoy the humor. While Lebowski has its share of action (mainly involving The Dude getting knocked around), the movie always remains fun. Raising Arizona (1987) is probably their next funniest movie, but there the action scenes, almost a live-action cartoon, were the funniest element.
The quotable dialogue is a key reason for Lebowski’s enduring popularity. Granted, since so many lines contain a gratuitous “fuckin,’” lines from Lebowski have not passed into the “parlance of our time” exactly. Yet for Lebowski devotees, the anticipation of favored lines of dialogue is one of the movie’s chief pleasures.
The rapport (and tension) between The Dude (Jeff Bridges) and Walter (John Goodman) provides the situations for much of the funny dialogue. We like the fact that Walter, a Vietnam veteran, and The Dude, a war protester, get along so well, and are bowling buddies. They are even more than that; their banter sounds more like familial bickering where Walter is the father, The Dude the mother, and Donny their child (“Shut the fuck up, Donny!”).
The plot of Lebowski is almost beside the point. The Dude coincidentally shares a name with a Pasadena millionaire, Jeff Lebowski, so some thugs rough up The Dude, seeking repayment for Bunny Lebowski’s debts. They also pee on his rug. After The Dude protests that he’s not married (“Does this place look like I’m fuckin’ married? The toilet seat’s up, man!”), they leave. But Walter talks The Dude into visiting the other Jeff Lebowski, seeking recompense for the soiled rug.
This misunderstanding sends The Dude to Pasadena, where he meets Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who fills in The Dude about the wealth and accomplishments of the millionaire Jeff Lebowski. The contrast between the two Lebowski’s — one a lazy slacker, the other a seemingly accomplished philanthropist — could hardly be starker. Shortly thereafter, The Big Lebowski’s trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) is (apparently) kidnapped, and The Big Lebowski hires The Dude to act as courier to deliver the ransom money. From that point forward, The Dude becomes the unlikeliest of private detectives, bumbling around stoned trying to figure out what happened to The Big Lebowski’s ransom money.
The Coen brothers have stated that The Big Lebowski has antecedents in Raymond Chandler’s work; so The Big Lebowski is a title much like The Big Sleep. More specifically, the Coen’s cite Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) as an influence. Altman’s film, where Elliot Gould plays a retro Philip Marlowe in early 1970’s Los Angeles, is a series of LA episodes where the central mystery doesn’t elicit much suspense. Lebowski works in a similar mode; it’s more about the quirky characters in various locales: The Dude’s pad, The Big Lebowski’s mansion, the bowling alley, Maude Lebowski’s mansion, The Dude’s landlord’s ridiculous dance performance at the Fountain Street theatre, Jackie Treehorn’s Malibu beach house. We see an abundant LA, where even slackers like The Dude and Walter enjoy a pretty good life, where there is time and money for bowling, beer, White Russians, and joints.
The opening scene of The Dude walking through the grocery store late at night seems lifted right from the beginning of The Long Goodbye, where Marlowe also goes to a brightly lit grocery store to buy cat food. The Long Goodbye also has a rough character, who, like Walter, is dutiful about following the Jewish Sabbath.
For a slacker, The Dude carries himself with a sense of entitlement. In the pre-title sequence, The Dude lets a grocery packer carry his purchase, a single carton of milk, out to his car. Later, he expects the Big Lebowski to pay him back for the soiled rug. Soon, Lebowski’s staff is carrying a rug out to his car. He expects the police to find out who stole his beater car (“Do you have any leads?”) He talks to Jackie Treehorn as if he were his equal, or at least a fellow professional in the entertainment business. (“Done. I like how you do business, Jackie.”) He expects the taxi driver to change the music even after he says that he’s had “a really bad day” and he “hates the fucking Eagles.” As loveable as he is, The Dude is a long-term sponger off the once lush California welfare state.
The soundtrack is also key to the movie’s mood and success. The opening title track, Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me,” an almost undiscovered Dylan gem, is a perfect theme song for The Dude. The Dude is also a Creedence Clearwater Revival enthusiast. Other characters have their own theme songs as well: Jesus has the Gypsy King’s cover of “Hotel California,” the German nihilists have Kraftwerk-like music.
Lebowski lovers love the performances, especially Jeff Bridges as The Dude. Way back in 1973, Pauline Kael wrote about Bridges in her review of The Last American Hero:
Sometimes, just on his own, Jeff Bridges is enough to make a picture worth seeing…Only twenty-two when this picture was shot, he may be the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor who ever lived…He’s the most American — the loosest — of all the young actors, unencumbered by stage diction and the stiff, emasculated poses of most juveniles (Pauline Kael, For Keeps, p. 504)
Bridges is the most natural of actors, especially here in Lebowski. Much of The Dude’s wardrobe came from Bridges’ own closet. His delivery is so natural. We never catch him acting.
The movie belongs nearly as much to John Goodman as Walter. He’s more of a ham than Bridges. He gets to scream a lot (in a funny way) and sound like the intellectual of the bowling team, quoting Theodor Herzl and Vladimir Lenin. Walter is the pro-active one in the family; without him, the plot wouldn’t have gone as far, as The Dude is too laid-back to stir up so much trouble on his own.
Lebowski wasn’t a hit when it was released in 1998. Many critics found it a disappointing follow-up to the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996). Perhaps, like the Coen’s The Hudsucker Proxy, audiences couldn’t see past the strange title. Yet Lebowski’s cult status is now undeniable. There is even an annual Lebowski fest, where people dress up as their favorite characters and repeat their favorite lines of dialog.
Lebowski doesn’t stand up to infinite repeat viewings. The feeling of doom when The Dude’s car and briefcase are stolen is not present on subsequent viewings. And the second half isn’t as funny as the first. I also think a few unfortunate choices were made at the screenplay level: Donny doesn’t really have to die, Walter doesn’t really have to pick The Big Lebowski out of his chair to “prove” that he isn’t disabled; we don’t really need The Narrator at all. I also find it surprising that The Dude would be so eager to leave Maude at home in his bed and go confront The Big Lebowski after he learns that he’s not really a millionaire in control of his own money.
But sometimes when I’m sad, I will put in The Big Lebowski DVD to laugh at the great natural banter of the American movie vernacular, perhaps never equaled.
First published in The Satirist