The following contains major spoilers for The Big Lebowski.
A former Seattle radical and bowling enthusiast now living in LA, The Dude – real name Jeff Lebowski – comes home to find two men violating his home due to a case of mistaken identity. Despite their mistake, they leave his house trashed and his beloved rug befouled with piss. He liked that rug. It really tied the room together. At the behest of his bowling buddies, he seeks monetary compensation from the intended target of his assailant’s harassment, the man referred to in the credits as ‘The Big Lebowski’. After some back and forth between the two, The Dude gets caught up in a kidnapping scheme after Big’s young wife is abducted. From there, it’s a sprawling journey into the madness of the Los Angeles suburbs, as twisted and hazy as a drug-induced hallucination.
The Coens are traditionally unforthcoming when it comes to the quote-unquote ‘meanings’ in their films. When pressed, they laugh, they shrug, they do anything but open up. This leaves their audiences, upon being greeted with the closing credits, to respond to their films with a lot of doe-eyed admiration, but even more head-scratching. What does the storm at the end of A Serious Man mean? Did Chigurh really kill Carla in No Country for Old Men? What the fuck is going on in Barton Fink? However, one of the most debated films in this most epic of pantheons is The Big Lebowski.
The Coen’s tribute to early 90s Los Angeles has many theories floating around about it. Gulf War allegory. Opaque tribute to the Last Supper. Overdue update of the Taoist philosophy. Alice’s in Adventures in the American Dream. One thing that is undeniable, though, is that it’s their take on stoner noir; Easy Rider via Dashiell Hammett, as practised by Kem Nunn in Tapping the Source or Thomas Pynchon in Inherent Vice.
Their clearest influence though, is the work of Raymond Chandler, a writer who famously used to recycle the best scenes from his short stories and compile them into novels. This approach meant that he had a tendency to leave a number of plot holes and loose hanging threads in his longer works. To him, it didn’t matter how a scene fit into the wider story as long as it grabbed the reader while they were reading it; and while this leads to some thrilling moments, it doesn’t add up to a satisfying whole. The Coens have followed this model so rigidly, The Big Lebowski having a plot with the coherency of a hippy at the end of this third doobie, isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.
The fact that it is both a pastiche of hard-boiled detective fiction and Cheech and Chong style slapstick farce means that the two genres conflict and compete with one another constantly. The mystery half of the film tries desperately to achieve legitimacy and add some weight to the plot, but gets undermined by the comedic aspects of its characters at every turn. This truly is a film of moments, rather than a cohesive, complete experience.
The brother directors have pieced this film together in the same way their inspiration, Chandler, did for his novels. There is a scrapbook mentality to it. There are dream sequences that borrow from 1950s musical productions, Richard Donner’s Superman, and the Wagner opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen. One of the film’s most famous sequences, involving a stolen car and some homework, is just an anecdote from the life of Peter Exline, one of the main inspirations for the film’s two lead characters. None of these sequences move the plot along in any way, shape or form.
It is a good job then that those moments are some of the most iconic, memorable and quotable in cinematic history. This film isn’t at its weakest when the comedic elements pull the rug out from under the cynical thriller, it’s when the film is at its most hilarious. Sudden bursts of laughter erupt when you realise that the most violent and dangerous characters are actually the most delusional and inept. One character reveals her reason for sleeping with The Dude and it’s not because of his irresistible hard-boiled machismo. A heartfelt goodbye ends up in a mess that replaces the tears of mourning with the tears of laughter. Take those two sequences that I mentioned earlier. The ones that don’t move the plot along in any way, shape or form. Their relation to the story might be tenuous at best, but they’re so funny and so full of personality, the film would suffer immeasurably were they to be cut.
The list of characters is long and extensive. Some of the most memorable parts are played by actors who get two minutes to work, three-quarters of the way in. It’s like the film is a tour of star’s homes where you actually get to meet the eccentric weirdos behind the electric swing gates. The Dude, even two decades later, lives up to the hype of a man who spawned his own religion, even if it is just a new skin for Taoism. Jeff Bridges’ inebriated dishevelment is a performance of such detail, that it could only come from a lifetime of experience.
Julianne Moore is the anti-femme fatale, being the perfect example of the trope even as she deconstructs it. David Huddleston – the title role – is a blast as American Exceptionalism stripped naked and exposed as the sham it is. But best of all is John Goodman as Walter Sobchak, Vietnam veteran and loveletter to the more bullish aspects of US foreign policy. Walter bullies his way into every conflict he sees, insisting he’s the only one who can handle it, and in doing so, becomes an unrelenting, unmitigated disaster, destroying The Dude’s life one catastrophe at a time.
No, like the Dude’s living room after some guy peed on his rug, there was nothing left to tie The Big Lebowski together. But if you look around, all of the individual decorations adorning the shelves and walls, are some of the most original, seminal and incredible in all of auteur filmmaking. It was a risk for the Coens to make something so deliberately ramshackle, but nobody writes a single scene like they do. No one could have pieced a bunch of individual moments together with the verve and wit they manage, especially without even trying to glue them all together. The Dude abides, and so do I.
Dir: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Prd: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Scr: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reid, Peter Stormare, Flea, John Turturro, David Thewlis, Sam Elliott, Ben Gazzara, Jon Polito
DOP: Roger Deakins
Editor: Roderick Jaynes, Tricia Cooke
Music: Carter Burwell
Run Time: 117 Minutes