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?
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.
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: