Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, the unemployed, pot-smoking, White Russian-drinking ten-pin bowler, gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity, blackmail, pornography, missing toes and a peed-on rug in the Coen Brothers’ loving and surreal homage to Los Angeles detective noir.
The 1990s were a good time for film-nerds, mostly because of Quentin Tarantino. It was suddenly cool to be the sort of previously socially awkward movie-fetishist who could endlessly quote reams of dialogue. College kids were dressing up as Mr. Blonde on Halloween (admittedly, a fairly easy costume) and asking for a Royale with Cheese at McDonald’s. Instead of ‘Monty Python’ or ‘Blues Brothers’ posters, ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘Pulp Fiction’ images decorated the walls and minds of students.
And if there was one film that has inspired cult-viewing as much as ‘Pulp Fiction’, it was ‘The Big Lebowski’. Fans – or “urban achievers”, in the parlance of our times – dress up as the characters and congregate in bowling alleys for viewing parties (White Russians and Thai stick optional). There’s a store in Manhattan called The Little Lebowski Shop that sells Dude merchandise. There’s a pseudo-Shakesperean version of the script written in Elizabethan English. It inspired a religion, Dudeism. And if we’re talking movie quotes, well, ‘The Big Lebowski’ may be the most eminently quotable film ever made.
Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is not a detective by choice. He’d much rather sit in the bathtub, smoke pot and listen to his tapes of whale songs or the soothing sounds of bowling strikes. But as the cowboy narrator (Sam Elliot) tells us, “sometimes there’s a man.” He’d like to tell us more, but he gets lost and confused in the middle of his narration, and that should be your first clue that ‘The Big Lebowski’ is not like any other detective film, but is very much like other Coen Brothers films: it’s more concerned with the byways and back-alleys of the story than with the main plot. Hence the presence of wildly over-the-top John Turturro as Jesus Quintana, the bowler with a fondness for little children and the Gypsy Kings. Hence the Dude’s landlord and his dance quintet. Hence the cruel treatment of poor Steve Buscemi, who was a motormouth in ‘Fargo’, and who barely gets a word in here. Hence … well, practically everything.
There is a plot, of course, and it’s quite convoluted, as all decent noir plots are. It begins with the apparent kidnapping of a trophy wife of a millionaire, the Big Lebowski of the title. Soon the Dude is embroiled with feminist artist Maude Lebowski (“my work has been described as quite vaginal”), nihilist Germans and their marmot, smarmy pornographer Jackie Treehorn, and a real private detective (“I’m a brother shamus.” “Brother Shamus? Like an Irish monk?”).
The Dude is aided, but mostly hindered, by his friend Walter (John Goodman), a Vietnam veteran with serious anger issues. Their pairing is not accidental, of course, for they represent the twin forces of the sixties. In real life a peace-loving, work-shy beatnik like the Dude would probably not be friends with the uptight, reactionary Walter, a man who is as obsessed with his Vietnam experience as much as with his conversion to Judaism (“Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Cofax: you’re goddamned right I’m living in the fuckin’ past!”)
What unites them is bowling, which Walter takes more seriously than anything else in his life (“This isn’t Nam; this is bowling. There are rules!”) The Dude loves bowling too, although we never actually see him bowl. We do see him inside a bowling ball, though, as well as in a dream sequence that’s a tribute to Busby Berkeley musicals.
Bridges has publicly wondered if the Coens didn’t somehow read his mind when they wrote the script. He’s a big, bearded, shambling, stoned, loveable doofus. Who wouldn’t want to be his friend? One of his endearing habits is to pick up someone else’s lines and make them his own (“this aggression will not stand”; “in the parlance of our times”; “sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar eats you”).
Does any of this mean anything? It’s a Coen Brothers film, so probably not, but it’s an awfully fun tale. If anything, it’s their tribute to the sprawl of Los Angeles, a city steeped in movie folklore. The opening is a memorable image – a tumbleweed moving west across the city to arrive at the Pacific Ocean while a country song plays on the soundtrack and the Cowboy talks about the city (pronounced “Los ANGLE-LEEZ”). It’s probably just as meaningless as the hat that blows through the woods in ‘Miller’s Crossing’, or just as profound as the idea that life, birth and death is how the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself, down through the generations, westward the wagons … and, hell, I’m rambling again….
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