‘The Big Lebowski’ At 25: A Cinema Icon, A Religion And Lifestyle (But That’s Just Like My Opinion, Man)

At 73, Jeff Bridges has been acting most of his life. Despite an uncredited role when he was a child in 1951, his life as an actor mainly started in 1970 and he’s in the sixth decade of his profession. While it looked like cancer would sideline his career, he recovered and appeared in Hulu’s series The Old Man picking up some of the best accolades and reviews of his career.

But there’s one movie that will be the defining role. God forbid, when Bridges is no longer with us, there’s one role out of the years he’s been working they’ll remember him for. It won’t be his Osca-winning role in Country Strong. Nor will it be his groundbreaking role in the Oscar-winning The Last Picture Show. Starman maybe will be mentioned. But his role as The Dude in The Big Lebowski is a role that he took on that will forever be associated with him as long as people watch movies and TV shows.

Bridges was about 48 when he filmed the role, his first and only time he’s worked with the Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan). The Dude is inspired loosely by Jeff Dowd, a film producer and political activist the Coens met during the early days of their career while working on their movie Blood Simple. But everyone knows someone like The Dude, which is why I think Bridges’ role reasonates with so many people, regardless of their own political beliefs or ideas. He seems to coast through life with little ambitions but doesn’t need much to begin with and no matter what a lot of people seem to like him or at least tolerate him enough as an acquaintance.

The Dude is otherwise known as Jeffrey Lebowski, the “handle” his parents gave him according to The Stranger (Sam Elliott) over the voice-over narration. The Dude lives in a bungalow apartment somewhere in Los Angeles County. The Stranger calls him the laziest man in the area. When we first see him, he’s shuffling through a Ralph’s supermarket at night in shorts, a plain-white V-neck T-shirt and his bathrobe. Even by Wal-Mart standards, he looks like someone who thinks putting on shoes that have to be tied is dressing up as he’s wearing sandals.

He’s finding cream for his White Russian drinks, or “Caucasians” as he calls them, he’s constantly imbibing everywhere he goes and has no cash on him but writes a check for about 61 cents while the young cashier watches him half-bewildered by his ineptude. When he returns home, he discovers two goons (Phillip Moon and Mark Pellegrino) are waiting for him there. They assault him, shoving his head in the toilet and then urinating on a rug he has in the living room.

But they’re at the wrong house. They work for a pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) and they initially thought he was married to Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), a former porn actress married to the wealthy and much older other Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston). Bunny owes money and Treehorn sent the goons to shake him down but went to the wrong house as the other Lebowski lives in a mansion in Pasadena. The thugs leave but The Dude is left with a stained rug.

His friend and fellow bowling teammate, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), tells him that he needs to contact the other Lebowski and get money as compensation. Walter is a Vietnam vet who runs a security business and ties everything he can to Vietnam, even ranting non-chalantly. He also has a short fuse and is constantly berating their friend and other teammate, Theodore Donald “Donnie” Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi), for constantly asking questions or making comments. Walter’s response is usually, “Shut the fuck up, Donnie!”

However, when The Dude arranges a meeting with the other Lebowski through his assistant, Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Lebowski is brusque and impatient. He tells The Dude that he’s not responsible and they reach an impasse where The Dude leaves Lebowski in his study yelling at him, “The bums will always lose.” However, he manages to lie to Brandt that Lebowski told him to take any rug he wanted.

There’s just one problem, it was a gift from Lebowski’s estranged daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore), a Bohemian eccentric artist, to her late mother. So, she sends goons herself to steal it from The Dude. At the same time, The Dude’s been tasked with helping Lebowski act as a courier as Bunny has been reportedly kidnapped. The Dude briefly met Bunny as he was leaving Lebowski’s mansion. However, things go wrong at the hand-off and Maude doesn’t believe the kidnapping is real as Lebowski has withdrawn $1 million from a charity foundation for underprivileged inner-city kids.

To explain anymore would give away the charm and fun of the movie. As a matter of fact, I think I’ve said too much already. It seems odd the Coens would do a kidnapping movie right after their Oscar-winning 1996 movie Fargo, which also revolved around a kidnapping. But this is an entirely different movie altogether. This is like a Chandeleresque modern day Western/neo-noir absurdist comedic look at the underbelly of L.A. Normally, they’re portrayed as sleazy characters, but the Coens twist it and portray them as wacky oddballs. The characters all seem to have their own problems that make The Dude look like a regular person, which might explain why he lives there.

What’s so crazy is the relationship between The Dude and Walter. What little we know about The Dude’s past is he seemed like he was a political activist in his younger days. Some would call him a hippie but I think he was just the type of person who went along with it because it was happening around him. Yet, Walter seems to be his closest friend. The two seem to have nothing in common except for their love of bowling, even though The Dude is never really shown bowling. I guess it shows that people can find common ground on something and then realize that they have more in common.

Produced on a budget of $15 million, the movie opened in theaters on this date, March 6, 1998. I saw it twice within one week. The played it at the theater in Statesboro, Ga. in the Mugs and Movies theater where if you were of age, you could have a White Russian with your popcorn, even though I think they just sold beer. I saw it just by myself over the weekend and then a few days later, I talked myself into joining some other people in my dorm to go see it because I liked it so much. But on a second viewing, I liked it a lot more.

However, many critical reviews weren’t so favorable. Maybe it was because so many people were expecting more from the Coens after Fargo. One can never say they make serious dramas. Movies like Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo and No Country for Old Men are serious in nature but they have comedic elements where the characters take on their own lives that you can’t call it comedy but can’t call it straight drama. Since I was in college at the time it was released and the fan base grew, I equate it to the elective class you take along with the more serious courses to have a little relaxation as well as an easy A. The Coens were just trying to have some fun at the time.

Watching the movie on an initial viewing, you might feel that Coens throw too much into the movie, adding characters who don’t seem to add much to the plot. Even though he is a fan favorite, you can take Jesus Quintana (Joel Turturro) out of the movie and it doesn’t affect the plot one iota. Yet Turturro, a constant collaborator with the Coens just like Goodman, makes his character stand out that you’re glad he’s there even though he only appears in three scenes (including a short flashback).

Jesus got his own spinoff movie The Jesus Rolls, even though I haven’t seen it nor was it well received. The Coens weren’t involved. It just adds to the movie’s legacy as people have come up with several fan theories that Liam O’Brian (James G. Hoosier), Jesus’ teammate, is his parole officer since Jesus is a registered sex offender. Late critic Roger Ebert, who gave the movie three stars on his initial review but four stars during a Great Movies column has theorized that Brandt is Lebowski’s son, since he’s often seen around Lewbowski at all times.

I’ve even heard a fan theory regarding the nihilist, led by Uli Kunkel (Peter Stormare) aka “Karl Hungus” who was Bunny’s co-star in a porno, and there connection to Larry Sellers (Jesse Flanagan), a teenager who lives in North Hollywood. Larry’s father, was a writer for the show Branded, but not lives in an iron lung. The nihilists (Stormare, Flea, Torsten Voges) claim to have kidnapped Bunny but Walter switched the briefcase and threw out a bag containing his dirty laundry. The nihilist took the ringer and left the vicinity but Walter and The Dude went bowling.

The fan theory is that the nihilists, who all used to be a German technopop band Audobahn, realized the bag was a ringer and followed The Dude and Walter to the bowling alley, hanging back and then stealing The Dude’s car. When they couldn’t find the other briefcase they drove it into an abutement, where a vagrant found it and slept in the car. Homeless people use newspapers and other forms of paper as insulation to help them keep warm. Larry’s homework, a social studies report he got a D on, was found in The Dude’s car. Larry is confused when Walter and The Dude show up to question him thinking he stole the money. The Dude left the briefcase he got from Lebowski to give to the kidnappers in his car. This also explains how the nihilists are in the parking lot of the bowling alley toward the end of the movie.

The Big Lebowski was a modest success at the box office making about $46.7 million. However, both Fargo in 1996 and O Brother, Where Art Thou released in 2000, both made more at the box office. The movie would find its audience on home video and cable TV viewings. Midnight theater showings became popular and in 2002, Lebowski Fest was held in Louisville before spreading to other cities over the years.

Then, there’s Dudeism, a religion devoted to spreading the philosophy and lifestyle of the Dude, with over 200,000 people become “ordained” on the website. I’ve even been ordained unoffocially. I just haven’t paid the money for the paper certificate. But like all religions, it’s really just a matter of faith and practices.

But what I think has brought so many people to the movie and its fanbase is that it appeals to people across political agendas, which is something rare in this day and age. It’s set during the early days of the Middle-East conflict that would go on to be the Persian Gulf War. The Dude watches a news story where President George H.W. Bush gives the impromptu “This will not stand, this aggression” speech, which was delivered in the summer of 1990. However, the check The Dude writes is oddly dated Sept. 11, 1991. The exact time and date isn’t the issue. Most of the Coens moves seem to be set sometime in the past rather it be a few years or a few decades.

Walter can be considered a neocon, but he is quick to correct The Dude when he refers to one of Treehorn’s goons as a “Chinaman” telling him the correct nomenclature is “Asian-American.” Walter is also a devoutly Jewish as he does “roll on Saturdays” because it’s “shabbos” the day of rest. During a drug-fueled hallucination, The Dude sees a man who looks like Saddam Hussein. But I don’t think he has much of a political beliefs. Him and Walter talk about another bowler they know who is a “pacificist.” The Dude tells Maude he was one of the writers of The Port Huron Statement which was a 1962 political manifesto of a student activist group Students for a Democratic Society.

I think the movie appeals to people as it’s just entertaining even as the movie’s plot changes in the third act when we discover everything that’s happening. Some critics have called it a “Shaggy dog” story but I think the story is more about various people who live in the L.A. area. Goodman had appeared in The Big Easy in 1986 which was really more about the eccentric characters of New Orleans that the heroin-smuggling plot takes the backseat.

Somestime, people need just a couple of hours of entertainment. I popped this into the DVD player the day my girlfriend died to get my mind off of things even if it was for a little bit. And as The Stranger tells The Dude, “Some days, you eat the b’ar. Some days, the b’ar, he eats you.” This means that some days are better and some days are the worst. That was one of the worst days, if not the worst, of my life so far.

The Dude finds himself thrown into a lot of incidents that wouldn’t have happened if the thugs had gotten the right address. I think the ending is the Coens telling us that The Dude’s life is going back toward normal or his version of normal at the end. Does Maude get the money back from her father? Do the nihilists get more than a beatdown by Walter when the first responders came? The movie ends with Walter and The Dude preparing for the semis bowling tournament. Like the tumbleweed that blows during the opening montage, no one knows where it really came from or where it’s really going. It just blows along with the wind, just like life.

But that’s just like my opinon, man.

What do you think? Please comment.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

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