The Movies We Love: The Big Lebowski (1998)

Today in “The Movies We Love”, I’ll be honoring this week’s New York reunion of the cast of one of my very favorite movies- The Big Lebowski (1998). The name itself prompts smiles from just about anyone you meet. It has proven that it has enduring charm through Lebowskifests all over the U.S. What is it about The Dude that makes him so durned special?

He is the ultimate Little Lebowski Urban Achiever.

Spoilers ahead
The engine behind The Big Lebowski is the incredible Jeff Bridges as The Dude. Few, if any, actors could channel cinema’s finest stoner as effectively as Bridges did. He created a legendary character. If I may cut to the heart of the matter, in the parlance of our times, The Dude is what we all want to be. He is care-free. He stumbles through life directly into hilarious adventures and reacts with an unflappable hippie deadpan that we all wish we possessed. He spends his time waxing poetic about rugs and days as a member of the Seattle Seven while wearing a raglan shirt featuring an obscure Japanese baseball player. He inexplicably finds himself bedding women like Maude Lebowski. He’s unemployed and doesn’t give a damn what day of the week it is as long as he doesn’t miss out on bowling and a steady flow of causcasians. He freely and easily utters phrases like “I’m sorry if your step-mother is a nympho” without fear of repercussion. Deep down, we all want to be The Dude, or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

The Dude wouldn’t be The Dude if he wasn’t surrounded by a galaxy of characters who serve as foils to His Dudeness. Directly next to him are his two close friends. On one side is the milquetoast Donny, who rarely offers any meaningful dialogue (in the most likable way imaginable). On the other side is Walter, he of the volcanic temper and gargantuan sense of self-importance. He’s chased by the uptight Jeffrey Lebowski and his sycophantic sidekick Brandt; by a trio of comically inept yet violent nihilists; and by the hedonistic pornographer Jackie Treehorn, complete with his two thugs. Even Sam Elliott’s minor character, The Stranger, has a classic American western flair that lies in direct contrast to The Dude’s eastern philosophical leanings. Each one of these characters possesses a primary trait that serves as a patchwork of the antithesis of The Dude. And all of them work in symphony to show us how much we wish were The Dude.

Somewhere, Busby Berkeley is smiling.

The Coen brothers wrap the whole thing up in classic Hollywood influences. The story itself is a nod to Raymond Chandler, the crime novelist who penned the book that would become The Big Sleep (1939). Both Maude Lebowski and Donny appear to be loosely based on characters in Preston Sturges’ Palm Beach Story (1942). The movie features a Busby Berkeley sequence when a series of lovely ladies in short skirts and bowling pin hats put on a perfectly choreographed dance scene. Standing in the middle of this scene is The Dude, who is dressed as a cable repairman featured in a pornographic film that The Dude had seen earlier in the movie. And yet, all of this homage to classic Hollywood features brilliant modern dark comedy- a severed toe; a flurry of usages of the word “fuck”; pornographers; and threats of severed wangs, just to give a few examples.

The comedy is impeccable all around. In addition to the dark comedy, Lebowski also works as a parody of late 20th century Los Angeles. Included: the buffoonish wealthy Jeffrey Lebowski; The Dude’s landlord, a performance artist; the pornography trade; the abstract art movement via Maude and her friend Knox Harrington (David Thewlis!); and of course, The Dude himself, a parody of hippie burnouts. The dialogue is some of the most quotable dialogue around.

In the end, this is all just, like, my opinion, man. Odds are good that you don’t need my convincing although I must point out that when I was 14 years old in 1990, I was a dead ringer for little Larry Sellers. I may just be an expert on this matter. If you remain unconvinced, I leave you with a scene that I feel perfectly encapsulates all of The Dude’s charm:


22 Comments

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22 responses to “The Movies We Love: The Big Lebowski (1998)

  1. Kelly

    *Smiles* I love that clip. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that this is one of my favorite movies and everything you said above pretty much sums up why.

  2. Darah

    Hated this movie first time out.
    Liked it the second rewatchterpiece.
    Loved it the third.
    It grows on you, man.

    • I definitely thought it was weird the first time out, but laughed. And I’ve learned to like it a lot more since then.

      I find a lot of Coen movies are like that. I’ve found myself liking them much more on 2nd and 3rd watches than I did on the first viewing.

      • I completely agree. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Coen’s film that doesn’t improve on repeat viewing. Like Darah, I did not get the love at all for LEBOWSKI (or FARGO) the first time I saw them, but now they’re both amongst my all time favourite films.

        Great piece as always John. Really sums up the laid back charms of “The Dude”

  3. Dude

    Something about this movie makes me want a Caucasian, man.

  4. Awesome film. The success this movie has seen rests entirely on Jeff Bridges’ portrayal of the Dude.

    • I love hearing the story about how the Coens approached him to play the role. They said something like “We made a movie just for you”. They described it and he thought they were nuts. Then he read the script and he was all over it.

  5. I’ll never know how to rank the Coen Brothers’ films in terms of which is “best.” But I do know that this is easily the most enjoyable and most eminently re-watchable film that I have ever seen.

    I once had a fairly elaborate theory on how this movie was an allegory for the struggle between the major schools of political and economic thought. The major characters stand in for each school: The Dude (Pacificism, potentially Zen Buddhism), Walter (A neocon-ish proactive militarism, seen in wars of choice in Vietnam and Iraq), the Nihilists (Nihilism), Capitalism (Big Lebowski, Bunnie Lebowski, Jackie Trehorn, Little Larry Sellers), The Intellectual effete (Maude and friends), authoritarianism (malibu police chief; many of the people Walter goes nuts on).

    Where you think the film comes down on all of these schools of thought is just, like, your opinion, man.

    • Ha… wait, what? Larry Sellers as capitalism? I was rolling with the whole thing, thinking “that makes a lot of sense”, and then I got to Larry Sellers.

      I agree 100% with your best vs. most enjoyable assessment. For me, it’s not even close- this is the most enjoyable Coen film by far. And given how great their movies are, that’s really saying something. I’m sure I’d have another Coen film- probably a few other Coen films- as “better”. But none have a place in my heart like Lebowski.

      • Think about Sellers in the abstract, assuming he did steal the Dude’s car and money, then spent it all. Kinda like, say, the banks that triggered our economic collapse by putting people’s money in mortgage backed derivatives. When the shit hits the fan, there are negative externalities that are born by other people, but not the banks themselves. Some other guy gets his Corvette’s windows bashed in, but the investment banks get a bailout. In our modified form of capitalism, the economic bad actor is generally well connected enough to get out with a slap on the wrists and his assets protected, like any of the Enron bigshots.

        Hey, I said it was a stretch! Maybe if you did a jay it would help see things the right way.

      • The guy who met Kevin Meany

        I kind of see “best” in Coen Brothers world as their best drama and “most enjoyable” as their best comedy. Best category–No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man, Millers Crossing, etc. Most enjoyable category–Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. Fargo may be the only one that would be on the Best and Most Enjoyable list.

  6. This is definitely one of my all-time favourites, too. It has charm and wit and such a feeling of its era that makes me grin from ear to ear.

    • 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. And even if he’s a lazy man – and the Dude was most certainly that. Quite possibly the laziest in all of Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide. Sometimes there’s a man, sometimes, there’s a man. Well, I lost my train of thought here.

  7. Stu

    I’ve always had a roommate who owned this picture; my girlfriend does not. Right about the time I move in with her this gets removed from Netflix streaming until November… Time to look into that new Blu-ray, I guess.

  8. i once caused a girlfriend to lose her job by going to the bar where she worked and having a caucasian marathon with my friend.

    drinking of the more common of russians aside i list this as one of my all time favourites and if i ever notice a lebowskifest in perth i will join all the other little lebowski urban achievers and go bowling.

  9. Picut

    Love this post, my favorite movie of all time. Crucially, though, you left out one of the most important foils – Quintana, man.

    Great work as always. Thanks John for improving the quality of my day.

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