IDIOT’S DELIGHT – HAPPY 25TH, THE BIG LEBOWSKI!
My usual practice in these celebratory pieces is to do some research on the making of the film and background on the people behind it, lay out the story behind the story-making, hopefully, in the process, dishing up some little-known items of interest and maybe even stumble across some insights into a filmmaker’s creative process.
Yup, that’s how I usually go about this.
But in the twenty-five years since The Big Lebowski blessed screens as a paean to – according to a descriptive in the script – the “terminally relaxed,” enough worshipful ink and online space has been devoted to The Dude and his bowling buds, Walter and Donnie, that I can’t think of anything to add that fans of TBL don’t already know (and considering their cultish devotion, can recite – along with lines of dialogue – without reference like rabbinical scholars quoting the Torah).
You all know the story: how the Coens took the structural spirit of Raymond Chandler – according to Ethan, “…a story that moves…through different parts of town and different social classes” – and crossbred it with surfer dude spaced-outedness, weed-head dopiness, and hippie burn-out-what-year-is-it-again-edness. You know how characters like The Dude and Walter were based on people the Coens knew and even some incidents (the stolen car found with some kid’s homework stuffed in the seats) were taken from real-life.
You also know how the movie was released to disappointing box office, less-than-enthusiastic reviews, yet then went on to become a cult phenomenon to rival that king of the cult movie circuit, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), with midnight shows and auditoriums full of cultists quoting dialogue back to the screen, Lebowski fests at bowling alleys, themed night clubs (including one in London called The Dude Abides), and even a religion: Dudeism. Along with the movie’s post-theatrical canonization came a critical re-evaluation like Roger Ebert’s who initially had given the movie a three-out-of-four-star review, but twelve years later came around to throw a fourth star on it and put it on his “Great Movies” list. In 2014, the Library of Congress’ National Film Preservation Board selected TBL for inclusion in the National Film Registry for its “historical, cultural and aesthetic contributions.” Dude! Duuuuude!
As with any movie that dies at the box office but finds larger success in the twilight world of cult films, such a resurrection can mystify. Let’s face it: despite the Chandleresque spine of TBL, the movie is a Robert McKee nightmare, constantly wandering off the (barely) central plot of (spoiler alert if you’ve managed to miss this movie over the last quarter-century) a false kidnapping and financial fraud. There’s the hysterical scenes with The Dude’s (and company) main bowling competitor, Jesus Quintana (mostly hysterically improvised by John Turturro), a snooty artist’s aim of trying to get impregnated by The Dude, yet another wandering off the path when the Dude’s car is stolen by a junior high delinquent, and then there’s the cowboyish voiceover narrator (Sam Elliott spoofing his own rusticity) who, for no logical reason (and this is a movie with very little logical reason) shows up in a couple of scenes.
And then of course there’s a cast of characters most of whom don’t seem to have a shred of common sense or sober connection to the world around them. The Dude lives his life wrapped in a marijuana cloud, Walter in a bubble of conspiracy theories and possibly PTSD courtesy of Vietnam, and poor innocent Donnie, well little Donnie seems to live just to roll strikes and be told to “Shut the fuck up, Donnie.”
The elevation of the movie by its rabidly-devoted disciples has even challenged the two men who gave the movie birth. I’m sure part of the Coens’ mystification is that of all their movies which include European film festival award-winners, Oscar-earners, and the critically sanctified, it’s a goofy, shaggy, ambling The Big Lebowski which — while not be their most respected work, — does seem to be their most beloved (and certainly most quoted!). Said Joel in an interview, “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.”
To which I’d say, hey, Oscars and film festival laurels are fine…but they don’t hold the room together like a perfectly selected rug.
Somewhere along the line, someone coined the phrase “idiot movies” for the Coen Brothers comedies: movies like Raising Arizona (1987), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), Burn After Reading (2008), to name a few, and, of course, The Big Lebowski. It’s not a pejorative, but a simple and clear observation that the characters constitute, as Vulture’s Dan Kois wrote of Burn After Reading, “…a cavalcade of comic dopes.” Kois went on to write:
“Sure, the Coens’ dark dramas, populated by dogged small-town sheriffs, struggling playwrights, or intuitive assassins, are the ones that garner awards. But we’d rather watch a movie that wrings laughs from the miserable crapshoot of life than one that drums philosophy into it.”
But none of the Coens’ idiot movies has struck that resonant cult-spawning chord the way Lebowski has, and on this, the movie’s 25th birthday, it seems appropriate to speculate on why.
As a rule, the central characters in the Coens’ idiot movies are people bumping into their own limitations and/or who find themselves butting their heads up against societal walls they barely understand…providing they understand them at all. Think of Raising Arizona’s convenience store-robbing H.I. (Nicolas Cage) who wants to go straight, raise a traditional “family unit,” but adoption agencies won’t cooperate, and his past – in the shape of two fugitive colleagues from his recent incarceration (Coen fave John Goodman and William Forsythe) – drags him back into a life of inept crime. Or the three dimbulb prison escapees of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro) whose quest for freedom and buried treasure hits more bumps and twists than a Coney Island roller coaster.
But there’s another brand of Coen idiocy which comes in the shape of characters who get themselves in deep doo-doo because they think they’re brighter than they are, like The Hudsucker Proxy’s (1994) Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins), Intolerable Cruelty’s (2003) supposedly shrewd divorce lawyer Miles Massey (Clooney again), Burn After Reading’s dynamic dunce duo of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand – another Coen favorite who also happens to be Mrs. Joel Coen) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt).
But what all of them have in common is — … Oh, what to call it? An ambition? A dream? Something that drives them: H.I.’s desire for a child to complete the picture of a family; Norville Barnes’ dream of becoming a big-time corporate exec; Miles Massey’s ambition of being the best all-time divorce lawyer getting derailed by another ambition in the pursuit of true love.
You get the picture. All of the Coens’ lovable doofuses are after something, and more often than not, they come away with…well, something. H.I. doesn’t get to keep the child he kidnapped, but has a vision of a future in which somehow he and his wife do have that loving family. Linda Litzke finally gets her wish of a near-total body reconstruction (even if in the process, she gets hapless pal Chad killed and sends the CIA into third-degree befuddlement — J.K. Simmons’ agency director: “I guess we learned not to do it again…I’ll be fucked if I know what we did”).
And this is where The Dude, Walter, and Donnie stand apart. Like other Coen mental flyweights, they maybe be clueless, deluded, and not all that bright, but they distinguish themselves in this way: they’re not after anything.
When Jeff Bridges was cast as the white Russian-swilling, reefer-toking Dude, the character seems such a hand-in-glove fit that he told the Coens, “Did you guys hang out with me in high school?” Even The Dude’s wardrobe came from Bridges’ closet. Think of perfect marriages of actor and role, right up there with Bogart and Rick Blaine, Gable and Rhett Butler, and Bridges and The Dude has to be on that list.
Unlike all of the Coens’ other idiots, The Dude has no ambition, other than maybe making it into the finals of the local bowling league and scoring some good weed. He lives in a perfect Zen state, not particularly worried about tomorrow, not all that tethered to the past. His pleasures are simple (bowling, a candlelit bath, a rug that ties his living room together). That his rent is late, that he has no apparent means of support…none of it matters. In what is probably the most quoted line from the movie: The Dude abides. According to Oxford Languages: abide – be able to tolerate. No matter what comes along, what tides and rogue waves toss The Dude around, eventually he’ll come back to an even keel and follow the advice of his good friend Walter (John Goodman): “Fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling.”
Which brings me to another Lebowski distinction which may be responsible for its connection to so many of its disciples. Underlying the whole movie, tying it together like a good Persian rug, and which brings the movie home in its last scenes is the idea of friendship. Oh, The Dude and Walter seem to constantly bicker like an old married couple, and as much as they’re constantly dissing Donnie for never quite plugging into the topic of the moment, there’s no real space between the three. In its own funhouse mirror way, the death of Donnie and the typically mishandled clifftop ad hoc funeral service for the dispersal of his ashes is touching.
Think of it. Poor Donnie dies, but it’s not family that tends to his remains, at least not blood family. It’s his two friends. They are his family, and compared to all the other dysfunctional relationships in the movie, it’s the only one based on affection. That closing shot of the funeral scene – the awkward but eventually warm hug between Walter and ash-doused Dude) – is rather sweet. Unlike every other character in the movie, The Dude, Walter, and Donnie have someone: each other.
In the end, maybe that’s what feeds the cult: that mixture of friendship and of being completely at peace with one’s self, unfettered by all the crap that seems to tie in knots not only the other characters in The Big Lebowski, but so many of the Coens’ characters, both the idiots and the dramatic heavyweights (who rarely fare well). We would all love to be able to abide as well as The Dude.
And if you don’t agree with me on this? Well, fuck it; I’m going bowling.