I’ll never be as high on this movie as I was in high school and college, which was, until recently, the height of movies being part of my personality. I’m pretty sure The Big Lebowski was my first Coen brothers film, and since then its been their comedies of low stakes men facing escalating existential circumstances (Burn After Reading, Hail Caesar, A Serious Man) that I enthusiastically recommend the most. They feel like underdogs, I suppose, though I admittedly don’t follow press cycles and don’t remember contemporary critical takes to say, definitively, that they were, just that they felt a little less loved than the Obvious Big Films that preceded them, your No Country for Old Men or Inside Llewyn Davis efforts, or, in the case of The Big Lebowski, the one that came out after Fargo.
I didn’t see Fargo until 2021, when COVID kept me in bed for two weeks that I spent watching movies and trying to navigate the fact that I’d been newly diagnosed with celiac disease while my poor mom had to figure out what gluten was. I went to Fargo, North Dakota for a wrestling match, a friend asked me to pick up a woodchipper magnet, so I did and I went home and watched it. Killer movie, 10/10, one of the great films of cinema. But back when I was watching The Big Lebowski on a loop, I had a little chip on my shoulder about it, skipping around Fargo in the Coens’ filmography, an intentional hole about the size of comments like those of Roger Ebert, who initially wrote, in a nice review, “Few movies could equal [Fargo], and this one doesn’t—but it’s weirdly engaging, like its hero.” In 2010, after Jeff Bridges won the Academy Award for Crazy Heart and while he was shooting the remake of True Grit he reunited with the Coens for, he’d write a Great Movies essay about it.
I started blogging in 2007. My first movie review was about Beowulf, a mean, stupid review that was absolutely written by a 19 year old. Then I turned 20 and started reviewing movies more regularly, beginning with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. From 2008 to 2011 (The Last Witchhunter), I appended something from this scale to the end of all of my reviews:
This is a long-winded way of saying that The Big Lebowski was a massive part of my filmgoing education and personality; at Bonnaroo 2009 I watched the movie under a tent and missed TV On the Radio or Bon Iver or another band I was really into at the time to do so — I’d find the schedule to verify which bands, but really all you need to know if that I was very drunk and had a very good time. That was my last screening of the film for years, as living in a city with multiple indie theaters, a bustling realm of film bloggers I was part of, a correspondence with Roger Ebert, bootleg screenings I invited my friends to after the advent of Netflix (first in the “honors lounge” I had the key for at the College of Mount St. Joseph, then in my first apartment in Bowling Green) broadened my horizons past the (incredible) cult films section at Video Exclusive in Dearborn Heights, MI (which is still going, baby — may it never die).
I watched it again in December 2021 and while I don’t have anything detailed to go off of because of how glib I am on Letterboxd, I remember feeling pretty cold to The Big Lebowski, disappointed that it didn’t hold up for me in the same way other movies, like ones where Arnold Schwarzenegger whips saw blades through people’s skulls, so often do. It was really hollow and kind of bittersweet. Then I saw it earlier this year in 35mm at The Plaza in Atlanta, and seeing it in a a grand space, designed for cinema, with a packed house, opened it up again. I saw it this weekend as the first part of a double feature with Road House, programmed together, I imagine, either because the heroes of both movies own cars that are magnets for abuse, or because Ben Gazzara throws a house party in both.
The programming didn’t work, but the movie does. I’m coming to appreciate it more and more as an effective skewering of the American condition. War is in the air, but in America our experience of it is televised speeches and the occasional footage of a military operation, less the smoke from the flames of conflict than the trail end of a whip of smoke, so it’s effectively ignored. The police are pettily violent and utterly useless in matters large (a man flashing his pistol at a bowling alley) and small (finding the culprits responsible for stealing a beat-to-shit-car). Phony millionaires and musicians and artists and pornographers slip in and out of identities as it suits their ambitions. The truly rich are trying to reinvent jerking off.
Our rock in this ocean of chaos is Jeffrey Lebowski, The Dude (Jeff Bridges), a man for his time and place according to the narrator (Sam Elliott), who, like the film he lends context and commentary to, finds himself lost in the labyrinthine complexity of The Dude’s life. What happens to him in The Big Lebowski is a perfect storm of Raymond Chandler, screwball comedy, and class friction, but his life is relatively complicated before a pornographer’s thugs show up in his home and pee on his rug. He’s unemployed and behind on his rent, but his landlord seems to adore him and would be honored if The Dude attended his dance recital and gave him notes. He authored political manifestos and was a core member of radical anti-war movements. Later, he was a roadie on Metallica’s Speed of Sound tour. He’s seen things. He has stories. He doesn’t remember much of it, but that’s part of his innate charm, if not how he came to earn his externally threatened zen.
His friends, Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi), are integral to his universe, incongruous as they are to his vibe. Walter is a Vietnam veteran and Zionist, self-centered and prone to violent outbursts and flashbacks to the war. Donny is a void, famously written to be the subject of Walter’s abuse (“Shut the fuck up, Donny”) because Buscemi’s Carl Showalter would not shut the fuck up in Fargo — here, trying to enter into conversations he’s missed out on because he was bowling, Buscemi basically bumps and feeds for Walter and the film’s minor villains, Jesus Quintana (John Turturro) and Autobhan, a German new wave band who turned to nihilism, raising aquatic mammals, and, in the case of their leader Karl Hungus (Peter Stormare), pornography when they failed to reach the dazzling heights of Kraftwerk or Gina X Performance. His reaction shots are perfect.
Donny dies in the third act, and while I tend to agree that the film suffers from bloating once The Dude figures out that he’s being played for a fool by The Big Lebowski (David Huddleston) in a plot to disappear a million dollars that I’ve come this far without mentioning, his funeral, where we learn he may have been a surfer, brings one of the film’s meta-narratives, the question of how The Dude comes to associate with his friends, to some closure. “He was one of us,” Walter says, holding a Folgers can full of his friend’s cremated remains to the Pacific Ocean. He means that Donny was a man who loved bowling, but if not for the relentless churn of league play, what would he, Walter, or The Dude be? Three men, alone, ostensibly left out of the time and place we’re told The Dude inhabits.
There is a strand of melancholy running through The Big Lebowski that I’ve never quite been able to identify before now. Its there in the plot, which sees The Dude sent on a futile quest to rescue a woman from kidnappers at the behest of a rich man, another futile quest to recover money the rich man stole from a charitable foundation, a third quest to find the same kidnapped woman, or the money, for a man she owes money to. In all of these, he is a pawn in a game being played in a Los Angeles that is entirely unlike his own, populated with businessmen, politicians, artists, musicians, and visual artists who regard his anonymity in their circles with a mix of disdain and mockery, though they all need him far more than he needs them.
They are, we’re given to believe, builders and creators, men and women who, to paraphrase the chief of police of Malibu, draw a lot of water in their community. They assume the universality of what they do, the importance of it, and thus the unimportance of The Dude, who is, for Walter and Donny, something of a field reporter and Quixotic figure, someone whose life has either taken on an enviable air of adventure or makes no fucking sense — outside of the nihilists, the only person in The Big Lebowski who finds himself in The Dude’s world is the man himself, thrown from his wheelchair when Walter, having forgotten that Shabbos is a day of rest, sets out to prove that Lebowski has been faking his spine injury. It doesn’t even occur to Jeffrey Lebowski that he’s meeting the “We” his patsy alludes to earlier in the film.
Those three men — everyone in The Big Lebowski, really — are living in the past to some extent. Jeffrey Lebowski’s image as a businessman and philanthropist is grounded in the fact that he was disabled in the Korean War. Walter Sobchak circles everything back to Vietnam, yes, but he’s also dogsitting a Pomeranian that belongs to his ex-wife, whose wedding ring he wears with his dog tags. When he’s not bowling, The Dude is at home, lounging on his rug and listening to tapes of old bowling tournaments, reliving past glories. Everybody has a past in this film, it either armors them or gives them cause to run.
It’s a closed loop of impotence and greed, and the Coens weave an astonishing amount of detail into its nearly two hour runtime. Those details — overheard news broadcasts, snatches of dialog, prop elements, costumes, and set design — pepper The Dude’s dialog (Bridges’ magnificent performance hinges on this; every time he repeats something he’s heard elsewhere in a new context, there’s both the ghost of where he’s heard it before and the spark of stoned invention) and explode in the Gutterballs dream sequence. The Dude is a sponge, soaking up everything in the new Los Angeles he finds himself at the mercy of. Wrung out, those elements are tinged with his fears and anxieties, many of which, like castration, he’s never faced before.
His only recourse (and I know I am misapplying this term) is radical acceptance. In one of the film’s centerpiece scenes, berated by The Big Lebowski as an unemployed bum, he makes a stand. When asked to leave — “So if you don’t mind—?” — he throws his hands up and says “No, I do mind. The Dude minds. This will not stand, you know? This aggression will not stand, man.” He brings up Bunny’s debts around town, and Lebowski explodes. The way Bridges leaps back in his chair when Huddleston pounds the desk is incredible — there’s fear, but also recognition that this negotiation is going nowhere. Mid rant, he sighs, looks for his sunglasses, puts them on, lets Lebowski finish, and says “Ah, fuck it.”
This gives Lebowski a chance to continue his little reverie for everything he’s achieved, to keep going after his self-satisfied chuckle. “Ah, fuck it! Yes! That’s your answer. That’s your answer to everything! Tattoo it on your forehead! Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski! Condolences, the bums lost!”
Maybe they did, and maybe The Dude is a burnt out revolutionary, but he endures. He gets his pick of rugs, he gets the girl, and he and Walter make it to the next round of league playoffs. He takes his losses and he takes his lumps, but life goes on until it doesn’t, and this is what The Dude abides. He isn’t just taking it easy for us sinners; he’s earned his rest. I could have done worse, so far as heroes to obsess over go.