“The Dude abides.” —The Stranger, The Big Lebowski
With Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski, among the most quotable movie this side of Double Indemnity or Sweet Smell Of Success, perhaps the best place to start is a quote. This one comes from “The Stranger,” Sam Elliott’s sarsaparilla-drinking cowboy narrator, about Jeffrey Lebowski, a.k.a. “The Dude,” the ill-kempt hippie burnout, bowling enthusiast, and accidental detective played by Jeff Bridges:
“Sometimes there’s a man… I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? Sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about The Dude here, The Dude from Los Angeles. 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. The Dude from Los Angeles.”
As the narration rolls out, we see The Dude in all his majesty, skulking around the dairy aisle at a grocery store, sniffing through the cartons to find half & half to stir into his beloved White Russians. Streaked with the blond highlights of a California surfer gone to seed, his shaggy hair spills over into an ensemble that includes an open gray robe, a dingy white V-neck that barely contains his billowing paunch, blue plaid shorts, and a pair of open-toed jellies that seem custom-designed for ambling. Upon reaching the checkout line, he pays with a check for $.69. From this brief snapshot, the Coens very nearly reveal the whole picture.
But here’s the thing about The Dude (“or Duder or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing”): He isn’t the man for his time and place, as The Stranger claims. He’s a man from an era that passed more than 20 years ago, someone who may have gotten his hackles up over Vietnam—he claims to have been part of the Seattle Seven, him and “six other guys”—but he’s since slouched his way into pot-addled oblivion. When the other, more materially successful Lebowski tells him later, “Your revolution is over. Condolences. The bums lost,” he doesn’t have the will or the leverage to disagree. What does he have to show for his activism? A crappy apartment, no job, a bowling buddy who lives to exasperate him, and a world so thoroughly neutralized by the non-bums that President George H.W. Bush is about to declare war on Iraq, and nobody bats an eyelash.
Back in 1991, when The Big Lebowski took place, I was one of those nobodies. The evening American forces entered the fray, I ducked out for a campus screening of the great gospel documentary Say Amen, Somebody; when I returned to the dorm, students were gathered around the communal television set, but no greater in number than on an average Simpsons night. Here was a large state college (University Of Georgia), given a war waged under dubious circumstances (Free Kuwait!), and the most that could be mustered were a few half-hearted “No Blood For Oil” rallies. Gulf War I ended relatively quickly, but the sequel has dragged on for six years and counting, and the only protesters out there are the wingnuts who consider a modest tax hike for the wealthy tantamount to Leninism. The pacifists have become pacified, and The Dude is their ossified relic of a hero, someone who long ago retreated to puffing on joint stubs and listening wistfully to his old Creedence tapes.
That said, who doesn’t love The Dude? And who’s to say he isn’t a hero anyway? Inspired by Raymond Chandler detective novels—and the hazy L.A. vibe of Robert Altman’s brilliant Chandler adaptation The Long Goodbye—the Coens have created a character not far removed from Elliott Gould’s Marlowe in the Altman movie, a laid-back gumshoe dragged reluctantly into a case his conscience (and curiosity) quietly implores him to solve. Just as Marlowe would much rather hang out with his cat and the commune of free-spirited (read: frequently topless) hippie women next door, The Dude would like nothing more than the peace of a hot bath, a doob, and the soothing sounds of bellowing whales piped through his Walkman headphones. But the funniest running joke of The Big Lebowski is that someone is always there to drop the proverbial ferret in the water: The laziest man in Los Angeles County, the ultimate in live-and-let-live hippie pacifism, is constantly being pushed out of his shell.
It all starts with the carpet-pissers. And that’s another brilliant thing about the shaggy-dog plotting of The Big Lebowski: By and large, the incidents that drive the story along are, in The Stranger’s words, “stupefying” in their absurd triviality. (The Coens pulled the same trick off again—to much more sweeping effect—with last year’s underrated Burn After Reading, which whips up a maelstrom of intrigue over an item of absolutely no value whatsoever.) Had the carpet-pissing goons not mistaken The Dude for the other Jeffrey Lebowski—the wealthy, wheelchair-bound businessman whose trophy wife (in the parlance of our times) owes money all over town—there’s no movie here. That rug “really tied the room together,” and The Dude’s quest to replace it leads him to get mixed up with a phony kidnapping scheme, a band of nihilists, tittering avant-garde artists, a pornographer, the fascist Malibu police chief, Saddam Hussein (as a bowling-alley clerk), and one Larry Sellers, a hollow-eyed young D-student who may have run off with $1 million in ransom money.
The Dude’s sidekick throughout his adventures is John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak, a short-tempered, well-armed Vietnam vet (and practicing Jewish convert) who tends to view everything through the prism of his war experience, no matter how slight or tangentially related. After watching his buddies “die face-down in the muck,” Walter feels entitled to a world that’s just and orderly, even if his idea of what that world might look like is completely absurd, distorted, and overblown. When a competitor steps over the line, out comes the handgun. (“This is not ’Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.”) When a waitress asks him to pipe down a little at a diner, he lectures her on the concept of “prior restraint.” And though he claims to have “dabbled in pacifism,” his hair-trigger aggression thoroughly violates The Dude’s peacenik philosophy, feeding into a hilarious dynamic of mutual exasperation. Still, they aren’t the opposites they appear to be. Both are outsiders, both are men out of time, and both are deeply suspicious of The Man. The Dude acts embarrassed when, late in the film, Walter drags Lebowski out of his wheelchair to prove he’s faking his disability, but there’s probably a side of him that suspects his friend may be on to something. Their oddball chemistry sparks one unforgettable exchange after another, including this scene, where they and their bowling teammate Donny (Steve Buscemi, as amusingly meek and unassertive as he was brash and talky in the Coens’ previous film, Fargo) discuss the rug-pissing incident:
The Dude takes action over the rug, but in the grand tradition of L.A. noirs like The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, and The Big Sleep, he mainly gets knocked around like a pinball until the case gets halfheartedly resolved. This leads to some of the Coens’ most whimsical creations: Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), a “strongly vaginal” artist first seen flying naked overhead on a harness; Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a sniveling sycophant of Smithers-like magnitude; Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), a porn producer whose beachside bacchanals are funded by videos such as “Logjammin’”; and, of course, “Don’t fuck with the” Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), a pederast who can really roll. There are so many detours off the main path in The Big Lebowski that the detours become the movie, which is a large part of what makes the film such an uncanny tribute to Raymond Chandler. I’m reminded of a famous anecdote about the making of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep: When screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthmann tried to consult Chandler about the absurdly labyrinthine plot, the author balked, claiming to be just as confused about it as they were.
Nevertheless, The Big Lebowski actually does come together more coherently than The Big Sleep—the Coens exert far too tight a grip on their productions to keep the loose threads dangling—but it may take a few viewings to piece together the shaggy-dog plotting, and the conclusion to the big mystery is shrugged off with an appropriate nonchalance. In fact, the Coens are so effective in sinking the audience in convolutions that they also obscure a funny secret: The Dude is actually a pretty wily sleuth. For one, he knows how to leverage his dumb hippie persona for a little rope-a-dope, like when he absorbs Lebowski’s verbal abuse, then informs Brandt that the big man said he could have any rug in the house. Yes, The Dude gets hung up on Larry Sellers’ culpability for too long, and his lone attempt at active detecting—shading over the pressings on Treehorn’s notepad with a pencil—backfires on him. But he has the right idea about the kidnapping scheme all along, and he thinks through the case as new shit comes to light. (Jon Polito, appearing as a fellow gumshoe working on a “wandering daughter job,” is duly impressed by The Dude’s mastery at playing both sides against each other.)
The Coens wrote The Big Lebowski with Jeff Bridges specifically in mind as The Dude, and it’s one of those roles so instantly iconic that it would be hard to imagine anyone else pulling it off. Bridges is, in my view, the greatest actor alive, and what’s striking about his work as The Dude is his utter lack of vanity and self-consciousness. Playing a long-in-the-tooth stoner burnout would seem to invite a cartoonish goofiness—and many of the supporting characters in the film exhibit just that—but Bridges slips Zen-like into his skin and doesn’t go mugging for effect. The miracle of Bridges’ career is that he’s a brilliant character actor who just happens to have the features of a marquee superstar (see also: Paul Newman), so he gets the plum lead roles, yet you rarely catch him “acting.” His line-readings and gestures are chief among many things that give The Big Lebowski infinite rewatch value: His mid-toke inflection on “That’s a bummer, man”; his all-too-relaxed spread-eagle posture while cruising in the backseat of a limo; and the slow-burning exasperation that curls across his face when Walter thoroughly botches their friend’s eulogy and ash-scattering.
Arriving on the heels of the Coens’ austere thriller Fargo, at the time their most widely embraced film (in terms of Oscar-worthy prestige, anyway), The Big Lebowski opened to mixed reviews and anemic box-office, with many casting it off as a frivolous lark following their great leap forward. (This is also roughly what happened to Burn After Reading in the wake of No Country For Old Men, and though a reappraisal of the former is definitely due, I’m not entirely convinced it’s on a level with Lebowski.) The film’s subsequent success on DVD—and the regular midnight screenings and Lebowski-fests that have popped up in the meantime—is a classic example of an impassioned cult resurrecting a film’s tarnished reputation. Quotes from The Big Lebowski have become a form of cultural currency second only to The Simpsons; for modern cult-movie fans looking for fellow travelers, they’re the closest thing to a Vulcan hand-sign we have.
Next week: Brick
May 28: Team America: World Police
June 4: Code Unknown
June 11: Trust