Movie Review: The Big Lebowski (1998)

The funniest 60s-burnout flick ever made _ 9/10
Review by Brian Wright

The Big LebowskiThe Dude: This is a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous. And, uh, a lotta strands to keep in my head, man. Lotta strands in old Duder’s head. Fortunately, I’m adhering to a pretty strict, uh, drug regimen to keep my mind, you know, uh, limber.

Brandt: You never went to college…
The Dude: Oh, no I did, but I spent most of my time occupying various administration buildings… smoking a lot of thai stick… breaking into the ROTC… and bowling. To tell you the truth Brandt, I don’t remember most of it.

Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Jeff Bridges … Jeffrey Lebowski “The Dude”
John Goodman … Walter Sobchak
Julianne Moore … Maude Lebowski
Steve Buscemi … ‘Donny’ Kerabatsos
David Huddleston … Jeffrey Lebowski
Philip Seymour Hoffman … Brandt
Tara Reid … Bunny Lebowski
Philip Moon … Woo, Treehorn Thug
John Turturro … Jesus Quintana
Ben Gazzara … Jackie Treehorn
Sam Elliott … The Stranger

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Or was it 70s? Actually, the high point of the years of counterculture and the antiwar movement seemed to lie somewhere between 1965 and 1975. A mixed bag (of weed, predominantly) to be sure, but yours truly was there real time, though sadly on the sidelines. I knew a guy, Steve, a Vietnam vet who worked with us in the audiovisual department at Wayne State in Detroit—in those days with the draft, if you survived your time in the killing fields you came home, none of this extended-tour crap—and he was constantly high. He reminds me now of the Dude (Jeff Bridges), with the possible exception that Steve had a full time job.

Much more than a burnout movie

Quite a bit more. We’re introduced to the Dude in the opening credits, he’s at the supermarket in an empty aisle, dressed in a grungy bathrobe and with pajama sleeping pants and sandals, looking both ways before grabbing a quart of half-and-half and helping himself to a long swallow to prove it’s all right. He pays for the half-and-half by writing a check for 67 cents and heads home to begin the day. Lebowski (the Dude) lives in a large but inexpensive tenement rendered less expensive by an aspiring-alternative-theater-‘actor’ landlord who forgives the rent, it seems, simply for a kind word from the Dude—whom he regards as a knowledgeable critic—and a commitment to one day come to his improv performance. Today is no different. So basically the Dude gets by with a lot of scamming and living frugally, and his needs are simple.

Later we see him in the apartment winding down from a hard day’s work with his favorite adult beverage, a White Russian, accompanied by a few tokes on some cheap bud. The door breaks open and some men come in to unceremoniously demand money… or they’re going to kill his wife, Maude (Julianne Moore), who they’ve kidnapped. Clearly a case of mistaken identity—they think he’s multimillionaire Jeffrey Lebowski and it’s highly comical to watch the Dude try to explain the obvious to these dimwitted hoodlums. They eventually leave, with the one, an ‘Asian-American,'[1] taking a moment to urinate on the Dude’s prized living room rug. The Dude is highly pissed—excuse the word choice—and locates the real Jeffrey Lebowski (the Big Lebowski (David Huddleston)); the Dude demands compensation for the rug.

Instead, the Big Lebowski gives the Dude a ration of crap for being a bum; later, the Big Lebowski having been visited by the kidnappers feels he can use the Dude as his delivery boy for the million-dollar ransom. And that’s where the plot gets into gear. Just the idea that an established man of wealth and industry would entrust a million dollars to the custody of someone like the Dude catapults The Big Lebowski into the cosmic never-never land of humor. What makes it incredibly funny down on the street is that the Dude never for a minute sees the charmed challenges—of this plot, of his life, or of the menagerie of odd ducks he hangs with and runs into. The Dude is dreadfully concerned that Lebowski’s wife will be harmed if he doesn’t treat his role seriously.

He makes every honest effort to do the right thing, but everything just keeps unraveling. The Dude’s one regular social activity, that doubles as exercise, is bowling. His two pals are Big Walter Sobchak (John Goodman)—a Vietnam vet who is loudly and constantly extolling the sacrifices of those buddies of his ‘who died face down in the muck’ so that all us civilians can live in freedom—and Donny (Steve Buscemi) a childhood pal of Walter’s who simply follows Walter around as a yes man and absorbs Walter’s constant verbal abuse: “Shut the fuck up, Donny. Forget it, Donny, you’re out of your element!”

Goodman as Walter deserved an Oscar nomination for his role, just as Bridges should have received one for “the Dude.” They are both exactly their characters, so much so you would swear they’re people you have known forever… especially if you ever spent time in and around Los Angeles. As if to give the movie and the characters a universal meaning, the writers create ‘the Stranger’ (Sam Elliott), a Cowboy ghost providing narration at the beginning and end of the film. The Stranger also shows up, briefly at the bowling alley bar where the Dude is ordering: he engages the Dude in friendly conversation. One of the exchanges goes like this:

The Stranger: “Hey Dude, I’m wondering whether you have to use so many swear words.”
The Dude, genuinely puzzled: “What the fuck do you mean?”

So that’s the answer. And the Stranger, an old-style gentleman, smiles to the camera conceding that however the Dude expresses himself, he’s the real deal. The Dude is a perfect gentleman of the heart and of his place in the universe. If there is any message, it’s from the Stranger’s noticing that if everyone in the world were like the Dude, there wouldn’t be any strife. And as if to validate the Stranger’s good graces, the Dude eventually drags Walter and Donny to his landlord’s bizarre theater improv (and compliments the guy)… of course, with the ulterior motive of keeping the rent queries at bay.

All the performances are perfect, including John Turturro playing the stylin’, smilin’, and profilin’ bowler in a skin-tight purple jump suit, Jesus Quintana. The sexually messed-up Jesus needles the Dude’s team mercilessly with menacing street prose you have to see and hear to appreciate. Laugh out loud material. Finally—and this sequence is worth the Netflix fee by itself—the Dude gets unintentionally drugged and winds up on a full-flowered acid flashback choreographed to “I just dropped by to see what condition my condition was in.” I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of the inside symbolism, but I don’t care. The Big Lebowski is my favorite overall laugh and feel good movie of all time, not a mean bone in its body.

The Dude abides!

[1]
The Dude: Walter, the Chinaman who peed on my rug, I can’t go give him a bill, so what the fuck are you talking about?
Walter Sobchak: What the fuck are you talking about? The Chinaman is not the issue here, Dude. I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude. Across this line, you DO NOT… Also, Dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, please.
The Dude: Walter, this isn’t a guy who built the railroads here. This is a guy…
Walter Sobchak: What the fuck are you…?
The Dude: Walter, he peed on my rug!

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