The Big Lebowski (1998), Lookback/Review
The Dude applies his particular brand of Zen to the neo-noir kidnapping caper, The Big Lebowski
There’s a lot about the Dude that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. He’s a nice enough guy. He’s easy going and as laid back as a feller can get. He enjoys simple pleasures. He likes bowling, White Russians, a joint now and then and the occasional acid flashback. (The best thing about flashbacks is that you get to trip for free). But most of all, he likes to be comfortable. He certainly dresses that way. He was one of the writers of the original Port Huron Statement. Not the compromised second draft. The SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) manifesto that concludes, in part, “Our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss.” That’s pretty much what happened to little Jeff Lebowski, which is what his parents named the Dude, although he’s based on a guy named Jeff Dowd. Since his comfort was penetrated, a religion has sprung up out of his simple beliefs, Dudeism: The Church of the Latter Day Dude, there is a traveling festival, called Lebowskifest, and a whole bibliography of pages devoted to him, including “I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski” by Bill Green, Ben Peskoe, Scott Shuffitt and Will Russell, “The Dude Abides” by Cathleen Falsani, “The Tao of the Dude” by Oliver Benjamin, “The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies” by Edward Comentale and Aaron Jaffee and “The Abide Guide” by Oliver Benjamin and Dwayne Eutsey. But I’m getting ahead of myself, it all started when somebody pissed on the Dude’s fucking rug.
That might not sound like a big deal, considering how events quickly got out of control, with people losing toes and shit, but that rug really held his living room together. We see how this disrupts the simple order in The Big Lebowski because we see the Dude through the eyes of an admiring stranger, who could be any one of us. And if a stranger can see how important it is, we can accept it and move on. Ethan and Joel Coen create a Lebowskiverse, filled with Lebowskiites, like the Dude’s bowling team and marginal friends, Walter and “Shut the Fuck Up” Donnie, played by John Goodman and Steve Buscemi. Goodman’s mania is contagious; it moves the Lebowskiverse like the pacific wind that scatters Donnie’s ashes all over the Dude. Other creatures inhabit Lebowskiland that can’t be found outside their natural habitat. Like the Big Lebowski, Jeffrey Lebowski, stuck in a wheelchair and filled with charity (“The bums will always lose”) an evil moneybag with a twinkle in his eye worthy of a hobbled Santa Claus, played by David Huddleston, and his officious, grinning lackey Brandt, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Brandt is happily dismissive of all things not Lebowski.
The Dude proves he has been mistaken for his wealthy married namesake by pointing out that his toilet seat is up and therefore, he couldn’t have a wife, much less a trophy wife who could amass and pass off big bills. The wife, Bunny, is played by Tara Reid in an almost carbon copy of the Carmen Sternwood character in The Big Sleep from 1946, based on a book by Raymond Chandler and starring Humphrey Bogart. Carmen is the spoiled daughter of General Sternwood, a man confined to a wheelchair after a lifetime of fast living. She is a stoned nympho. Bunny is a former porn actor who really knows how to apply toenail polish. She is a nymphomaniac gold-digger who has been kidnapped and held as a marker for her debts. Jeffrey Lebowski is a broken man without his Bunny and makes an emotional plea to the Dude to make the million dollar drop. (This scene was expertly skewered in its entirety in the cartoon The Power Puff Girls with the clever substitute of just one word.) Bunny is the femme fatale that brings the Dude into a neo-noir world of intrigue and adventure that goes down like a good Sioux City sarsaparilla.
The Coen brothers have a way of turning the most recognizable landscapes dark. Deceptively familiar places unhinge to become surrealistic hangouts with hidden horrors. In their first feature, Blood Simple, they spilt enough blood in one scene to fill a tap and they prove you can’t contain that Barton Fink feeling in a hat box. It doesn’t matter if it’s high noon or the midnight hour, a sunny beach or a dim parking lot, whoever is on the horizon is going to eclipse the light with their shadowy presences. Even the bowling alley has dangers in its gutters. John Torturro exposes himself as the menacing adversary and pederast Jesus Quintana when Walter has to postpone the league championship because he can’t roll on high-holy day Shabbos (“I’m as Jewish as fucking Tevya”). Steve Buscemi, the poster boy of 90s indie film, plays a Coen brothers in-joke, Theodore Donald “Donny” Kerabatsos, who is all but gagged in a nod to his chatterbox criminal in Fargo. The characters move the story; they provide the dark philosophies of happiness and the nihilism of shopping sprees and technopop. The directors convey a sense of hypernaturalism, and encourage the actors to explore the depths of caricature and the heights of realistic riffing. As Jackie Treehorn, a loan shark who makes thoughtful beaver flicks, the brothers Coen cast Ben Gazzara who, as part of John Cassavetes’ ensemble of filmmaking friends along with Peter Falk, was one of the pioneers of on-script improvisation.
As in most noirs, you really don’t know what’s going on and who’s behind what even as you get explanations. Walter is the first to see this. Behind his explosive, Vietnam vet persona is a shell-shocked powder keg waiting for a match. When no one offers him a light, he’ll ignite himself. Walter is the one who lights the fire under the Dude’s pajama bottoms. Maude Lebowski, the larger Lebowski’s acrobatic paintbrush of a daughter, is the first to confirm that the Dude is being played for a rube and that there is a ruse behind the ruse. Maude, played by Julianne Moore, the everything-award nominated actor who writes children’s books, celebrates all things vaginal, likes making men uncomfortable and wants to take advantage of the Dude’s disposable fatherly attributes before they get cut off. The would-be castrators are the group of faux kidnappers played by Peter Stormare, Torsten Voges, Red Hot Chili Pepper Flea and a four-toed, voice-carrying Aimee Mann. The hyper-real turns surreal as the Dude’s beatings get blurred by chemicals and turn into a fireworks display which turns into a magic carpet ride.
Jeff Bridges has said that he identified with the role of the Dude more than any other character he’s ever played. He got to choose his own music, mix his own drinks and roll his own joints. He also got to keep the pajamas his character wore. Jeff Bridges came from an acting family, his parents are Dorothy and Lloyd Bridges and his older brother is Beau Bridges. Bridges was one of the youngest actors to be nominated for an Oscar, for his role as the popular Duane Jackson in The Last Picture Show when he was 22. He is also one of the oldest actors to win an Oscar for playing the down and out country singer Otis “Bad” Blake, in Crazy Heart in 2009, when he was 60. He was also nominated for playing Rooster Cogburn in True Grit in 2010. He shines most when he’s at his scruffiest. He was called the most naturalistic and least self-conscious actor on film by Pauline Kael. He also got to save Jessica Lange from King Kong.
With Bunny safe at home, it becomes clear that nothing was ever clear except the occasional epiphanies of stoner clarity. The whole mess was a murky meandering that left an unnecessary body count and finally killed the Dude’s car. The best way to see everything is to take a step back and admire the style, well, parts of it, anyway, like perennial cowboy Sam Elliot did as the Stranger and narrator. Like a camera shooting from inside the holes of a bowling ball, The Big Lebowski captures a manipulated point of view and illustrates that life is a random series of strikes and gutter balls. Sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar eats you and even when you have to pay by check for a 69 cent quart of milk, the Dude abides. I take comfort in that.