Who made it?: The Coen Brothers, Universal Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro.
What’s it about?: Stoner layabout “Dude” Lebowski is mistaken for a millionaire, sparking a madcap tale of soiled rugs, abduction, car theft, pornography…and bowling.
Tag-line: “Her life was in their hands. Now her toe is in the mail”.
IMDb rating: 8.2/10.
The Big Lebowski is the very definition of a cult film: Too quirky for mainstream audiences and proud of it. It has legions of fans who discovered its charms on home video and could probably recite it word for word. Few films have festivals devoted to their existence – the rather popular Lebowski Fest – and the sight of people wearing t-shirts proclaiming “The Dude Abides” has become commonplace. People just love The Dude (Bridges), who would probably win the prize of cinema’s most laid-back protagonist.
Like any true cult film, The Big Lebowski was a critical and financial disappointment upon its release in 1998. You have to wonder what reviewers were smoking – this is easily the funniest picture in the Coen’s filmography and a contender for funniest of all time. Yet, calling it a mere comedy isn’t doing the film justice. Lebowski defies classification. It’s a lark, a crime story, a mystery and like every Coen film, a character study. You could also call it a musical – several dream sequences allow the directors to let-loose visually, and from a technical standpoint the film is a real marvel. A sequence shot within a rolling bowling ball is one such example of the Coen’s ingenuity, although it’s their screenplay which transforms the film into a modern classic; deceptively complex and filled with memorable dialogue.
Much has been made of The Big Lebowski‘s structural similarity to Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep. There is certainly a noir element to the proceedings but it wasn’t the Coen’s first attempt at the genre. They’d experimented as far back as their début, Blood Simple (1984), and there are distinct noir overtones to gangster drama Miller’s Crossing (1990) and the surreal Hollywood satire Barton Fink (1991). Their fascination with pulp 40’s crime fiction would reach its apotheosis with The Man Who Wasn’t There in 2001; perhaps the pair’s most under-appreciated film.
You could compare the hapless Dude to Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, who enjoyed drinking heavily and playing chess. The Dude, by contrast, spends much of his time stoned and going bowling (although we never actually see him do the latter). All of the film noir tropes are present and correct – voice-over narration (delivered by “The Stranger”, Sam Elliott), a group of heavies tormenting our hero (including Flea, of all people) and a strong female (Moore’s well-spoken but strange modern artist). There’s even a fleeting appearance from a private detective (Jon Polito).
Yet, The Big Lebowski never feels like a Maltese Falcon. The Coen’s inimitable direction transforms the archetypes into something fresh and unique (as well as hilarious). As a comedy, the film is one of the most quotable ever written, and there’s a greater laugh ratio here than in anything released by a Hollywood studio in recent years.
While the writing and direction are first-rate, the real draw to The Big Lebowski is the sizeable ensemble cast, and they deliver the dialogue to perfection. With limited screen-time, Turturro leaves an impression as bowling supremo (and convicted pederast) Jesus Quintana. What’s surprising is how much Turturro brought to the role that wasn’t on the page, including that infamous shot of him shining his bowling ball.
Goodman, a Coen-regular as far back as Raising Arizona (1987), hasn’t been this energised in a performance since – his troubled Vietnam vet Walter almost steals the show and gets his share of the best lines.
In a small role, Buscemi is merely there to bear Walter’s wrath, but is nevertheless memorable as the forever out-of-his-element Donnie. After playing a motor-mouth in the Coen’s previous film Fargo (1996), it’s amusing to note how few lines he has here; a performance hinging on facial expressions and comedic timing.
As The Dude (or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing), Bridges is on career-best form. He seems completely at ease in this role, which might not be surprising considering his self-confessed appreciation for pot. He’s in every scene except one and like any noir protagonist he leads the audience every step of the way. The Dude may be a slacker, he may be missing a few brain cells, but he also has a strong moral compass and a killer sense of humour. He’s like Tron‘s Kevin Flynn without the intellect. Bridges hits every note and it’s thanks to him that The Big Lebowski works as well as it does. This is an iconic performance that deserves its cult following. The Dude abides, indeed.
— The Dude is based on someone the Coens know, Jeff Dowd, who helped secure distribution rights for Blood Simple. Like his fictional counterpart, Dowd was referred to by himself and others as “The Dude” and was partial to a White Russian.
— Throughout the film it is mentioned that The Dude is unemployed, but the original script provided an answer to his source of income: He was an heir to the inventor of the Rubik’s Cube. It was Joel Coen’s idea to leave it a mystery.
— Walter was inspired by yet another acquaintance of the Coens, filmmaker John Milius (Conan the Barbarian), who has a well-known appreciation for firearms and the military.
— The original score is by Carter Burwell, who has composed music for every Coen film except O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).
— In one scene, The Dude mentions he was a roadie for Metallica on their (fictional) “Speed of Sound” tour. Despite calling them “a bunch of assholes”, the band were over-the-moon about being referenced in a Coen Brother’s film. Guitarist Kirk Hammett also revealed that they tried to incorporate this scene into their live shows.