Times like these call for a Big Lebowski
The Big Lebowski, among other inspirations, was heavily influenced by the work of Raymond Chandler, and the movie adaptations of them. One of the most famous, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, came out almost exactly 25 years before Lebowski, and now 25 more years have passed since the arrival of the Coens’ story of a hippie in an L.A. detective plot.
In March of 1998, the Coens and Jeff Bridges introduced us to The Dude, a burned-out ex-hippie who hints that he was once a political radical of some consequence — he was both part of the Seattle 7 and among the authors, in 1962, of the Port Huron Statement- the original, not the compromised second draft.
But by 1991, when the film is set — allowing for lots of “this aggression will not stand” references and the in-dream appearance of Saddam Hussein —
The Dude is an unemployed layabout in a less-than-glamorous part of Los Angeles, spending most of his time at a bowling alley. Despite that, we never actually see The Dude bowl, although one dream sequence has him inside a bowling bowl as it rolls down the lane.
Life changes due to a series of misunderstandings, mostly involving The Dude being mistaken for another man in the same city who happens to be named Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston). Soon after, he gets pulled into a wildly complex plot involving a kidnapped trophy wife, a briefcase of cash, a kidnapping, porn, art commended as being strongly vaginal, and a violent trio of German nihilists. It probably took me years of watching this movie to understand the plot entirely, but that doesn’t really matter, and this was also the case for movies like The Big Sleep.
The film is deeper than it first appears, and watching it dozens of times — as so many fans have done — can lead to new observations. It’s an amusing running joke in the film that the further the plot goes on, gradually worse things happen to The Dude’s car. It gets dinged, then crashed, then stolen, then a vagrant uses it as a toilet, then it gets attacked again before it finally burns at the end.
And, of course, there are plot holes and unanswered questions. Did Bunny really coordinate the fake kidnapping with the nihilists, or did they just notice she was missing and pull it off on their own? Why was Walter ever allowed in the bowling alley, or league, ever again after pulling a gun during league play? Did Larry really steal the car, or was he framed?
And as William Goldman pointed out at the time, after all the discussion of the upcoming bowling tournament, why don’t we ever see it?
The film is famous for so many things, all of them deserved. Not a big hit when it was released, The Big Lebowski developed a major cult and fandom that led to tours and conventions, complete with Dude impersonators. It’s a great L.A. movie, exploring infrequently used corners of the city. It created lots of indelible characters, from the Dude himself to incongruously Jewish rage-case Vietnam veteran Walter Sobchak to bowling champion and convicted sex offender Jesus Quintana.
And it’s one of the most quotable movies ever made. The famous ones are great — “Nobody fucks with the Jesus,” “the Dude abides,” “if you will it, Dude, it is no dream,” and “this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass. But some of the lesser-quoted ones are outstanding too; I’m partial to “Mr. Treehorn treats objects like women, man” and “darkness washed over the Dude – darker than a black steer’s tochus on a moonless prairie night.”
The Big Lebowski isn’t quite a sleeper cult movie to me. As a lifelong Coens stan, I saw it on opening weekend, at home on spring break from college, and wrote a rave review in my college newspaper.
I fully expect Lebowski to endure as a cult classic for 25 more years. It’s currently available to stream on Peacock.