The Big Lebowski at 20: Why It’s A Coen Brothers Classic

Twenty years after its release, we take a look back at one of the Coens’ finest ever films - 1998 comedy, The Big Lebowski...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Like Spinal Tap or Withnail & I, The Big Lebowski is one of those films that is often quoted at length by its legion fans – sometimes after a few pints in a crowded pub. Yet the Coen brothers’ 1997 eccentric comedy is so much more than a grab-bag of catchy bits of dialogue – it’s arguably as genre-bending and smart as anything the pair have written before or since.

Key to The Big Lebowski’s brilliance is Jeff Bridges’ deceptively detailed performance as Jeff Lebowski – better known to his friends as The Dude – former roady for Metallica turned full-time layabout in ’90s Los Angeles. Bridges slips into his character’s baggy, lazy skin so naturally that it’s easy to overlook just how good his turn is: there’s a studied subtlety and depth to his slothful hero. The Dude lives in a semi-permanent state of whacked-out, low-key bliss. This is because he’s actually content with the little that he has in life; he’s perfectly happy with his crummy two-room apartment, his beat-up car and his endless nights spent getting stoned or going bowling with his friends.

Whether they exist on a screen or in the pages of a book, most characters are defined by their desires – the things they’re missing, the things they don’t yet have. The Dude doesn’t particularly want anything. That is, until a misguided goon decides to urinate on his threadbare Persian rug – one of the few bits of decor in his otherwise featureless flat (a giant poster of Richard Nixon on a bowling lane is another).

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But even after that petty act of vandalism, The Dude doesn’t have any particular ambition to do anything about it. Instead, it’s ranting Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) who gets the rusty wheels of the movie’s plot spinning, by suggesting to The Dude that he should pay a visit to the person whose rug was supposed to be peed on in the first place. 

The thugs, we soon learn, were chasing down some money owed to a millionaire porn baron by a young woman called Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid). The Dude, who happens to share the same surname as a wealthy Los Angeles industrialist (the Big Lebowski of the title), has been the subject of mistaken identity.

Suddenly fired up by Walter’s self-righteousness, The Dude heads to the Big Lebowski’s mansion to give the old geezer a dressing down – and maybe score himself a replacement rug at the same time. Instead, The Dude ends up in the middle of an increasingly bizarre detective story that he’s frequently too stoned to comprehend. The Big Lebowski’s trophy wife Bunny has apparently been kidnapped by a group of German nihilists, who demand a million dollars in exchange for the girl’s safe return.

Obsequious man-servant Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman) duly presses a briefcase full of cash and a colossal mobile phone into The Dude’s hands and packs him off to deliver the ransom. Needless to say, things don’t go exactly to plan – thanks in no small part to the trigger-happy Walter.

The Big Lebowskis premise is so unique that it could almost be described as high-concept: namely, what would happen if a middle-aged stoner got dropped in the middle of a Raymond Chandler conspiracy like The Big Sleep? The Coens’ story has pretty much everything you’d expect from a piece of hard-boiled fiction: a missing girl, pornographers, a reclusive old millionaire (brilliantly played by a ranting David Huddleston), a femme fatale with an uncertain agenda (Julianne Moore’s Maude, with a storming cut-glass accent), guns, severed digits via post, corrupt cops and a delicious twist ending. 

How remarkable, then, that filtering Chandler through the mind of The Dude renders its genre trappings almost unrecognisable, like wrapping an elephant statue in multiple layers of gauze. The Big Lebowskis languid pace and odd digressions are all part of the joke; detective stories are supposed to be gripping page turners, but The Dude just drifts from scene to scene with a white Russian in hand and zero urgency. He picks up clues almost by accident. He’s the tumbleweed blowing down the boulevards of LA in the opening credits; if he arrives anywhere at all, it’s usually by accident.

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What makes The Big Lebowski work is the Coens’ obvious affection for their characters. Walter should be a raving, gun-toting monster, but just like John Turturro in Barton Fink, John Goodman takes the script and turns Walter into a likeable old bear who doesn’t know his own strength. Even smaller characters like Donnie (a monosyllabic Steve Buscemi) and sexual deviant bowler Jesus Quintana (Turturro again) are given light and shade; these are larger-than-life characters, sure, but they emerge as believable people from the fringes of society rather than collections of quirks.

The Big Lebowski’s warmth might come from the characters’ real-life origins. The Dude was based on a friend of the Coens – independent movie producer and one-time anti-Vietnam war protestor Jeff Dowd. Walter is partly modelled on the writer-director John Milius, who never actually went to ‘Nam but nevertheless shares the same blood-and-thunder temperament and affection for firearms.

It’s worth comparing The Big Lebowski to the Coens’ latest film, Hail, Caesar!. The two movies share plenty in common, including an LA setting, a kidnapping and a cast of perpetually confused neurotics. There’s lots to love in the new Coen joint, yet there’s seldom the impression that the Coens particularly like any of the oddball actors and producers as much as the characters they created for The Big Lebowski.

Perhaps this is why The Big Lebowski feels so much more complete as a movie than Hail Caesar!, even though both films share the same loose structure and languid pace. The Dude’s unique view on 90s LA, and the Coens’ affection for him, really ties the whole movie together.

The Big Lebowski also sees the Coens experiment further with the use of cinematography and music to elicit unexpected, often surreal laughs. Photographer Roger Deakins (who previously worked with the Coens on Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy and Barton Fink) clearly has a great time lighting and framing the Busby Berkeley-inspired dream sequences, or the innovative shots where the camera follows a bowling ball on its date with a forest of pins.

Carter Burwell’s music, and the soundtrack of ’70s rock music seemingly taken from The Dude’s eight-track tape collection, heighten the impression that we’re taking a tour through the protagonist’s hazy mind. The use of Gypsy Kings’ cover of “Hotel California” is a master-class of design and editing: the purple-clad bowler lining up his shot on the lane, bowling the ball in glorious slow motion, before breaking into a flamboyant victory dance to the strum of a Spanish guitar. As the grand entrance from a movie villain, Jesus’ introduction is surely up there with Darth Vader wheezing his way onto the Tantive IV or the stomp of the T-rex’s feet in Jurassic Park.

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It’s the Jesus scene that underlines the Coens’ writing and filmmaking talent. You could show that clip in isolation and still get a laugh out of it, but it isn’t a comic aside thrown idly into the script. With barely a word spoken, it introduces Jesus as one of the movie’s many antagonists, an arch rival to The Dude’s motley trio of outsider bowling enthusiasts. The Big Lebowski positively glitters with clever touches like this – moments that appear to be meaningless but actually wind up being paid off later on. So what if The Dude’s landlord fancies himself as an amateur interpretive dancer? Well, the subsequent performance provides a refreshingly different venue for the next beat in the plot – Walter’s discovery that The Dude’s car was stolen by some school kid whose father wrote about a hundred episodes of the old cowboy show, Branded.

It would be quite easy to sit here and simply type away about the brilliance of the dialogue – the way even incidental lines trip off the tongue and understand the melody of language. “Who the fuck are the Knutsens?” isn’t just funny because it’s sweary, but because the fiddly surname provides such perplexing counterpoint to the monosyllabic cursing.

Actually, let’s interrupt this appreciation with a few of The Big Lebowskis most quotable lines. You’re sure to have plenty of your own, but here are my favorites:

10. “He’s a good man, and thorough.”

9. “Obviously you’re not a golfer.”

8. “Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

7. “Smokey, my friend, you are entering a world of pain.”

6. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

5. “Mr Treehorn treats objects like women, man.”

4. “Nobody fucks with the Jesus”

3. “Obviously you’re not a golfer.”

2. “I am the walrus.”

1. “Shut the fuck up, Donny.”

The Dude’s chilled reactions to even the most extreme circumstances are funny not because he’s just a bumbling clown – though The Big Lebowski doesn’t skimp on physical comedy – but because he doesn’t vary his register depending on who he’s speaking to. Where some of us might be tempted to ingratiate ourselves to a millionaire like Lebowski, the Dude simply sits back in his chair with his hair flopping over his red-ringed eyelids.

Perhaps it’s only right that The Big Lebowski is much more tightly-written and smart than it appears on the surface. The Dude, for all his sleepy-eyed cluelessness, does eventually get to the bottom of the whole Bunny kidnapping mystery. That it would have probably resolved itself even without The Dude getting embroiled in it all is part of the point; our hero gets in over his head and comes out the other side, minus one car and now the tenant of a very damaged flat. Not that it matters to The Dude; as long as he has his friends, his bowling, a bit of weed and a white Russian, he’s happy with his lot in life. As the movie points out, there’s a world of difference between nihilism and contentedness.

Perhaps that’s what we can take comfort from, to paraphrase Sam Elliott’s wonderfully droll narrator. No matter how anxious or full of care our lives are, there’s something wonderful about spending time with a character who is so content with relatively little. As ever, The Dude abides. 

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