15 Years With The Dude: The Big Lebowski

Originally considered a box office flop, The Big Lebowski was denounced by reviewers in 1998 as an indulgent mess made on the heels of the Coen brothers’ critically praised and Oscar-winning film, Fargo. Critics dismissed Lebowski as lowbrow, disjointed, and lacking an engaging main character in Jeff Bridges’ The Dude. Most believed this would be quickly forgotten as a small blemish on the filmmaking duo’s prestigious resume (a real mistake on their parts, since we hadn’t yet been subjected to the Coens’ actual low period of studio flops with The Lady Killers and Intolerable Cruelty.)

But now reaching its 15-year anniversary, The Big Lebowski has made the jump from misunderstood cult offering to one of the best comedies in the last 30 years. Both John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak and Bridges’ The Dude made Empire magazine’s ”100 Greatest Movie Characters,” ranking in at #49 & #7 respectively.  The film landed the number 8 spot on Entertainment Weekly’s “Funniest Movies of the Last 25 Years” list, and it’s on the greatest movies lists of countless critics, including Roger Ebert’s. The film has even spawned one of the biggest cult conventions ever, Lebowski Fest, an annual multi-city festival that celebrates everything Lebowski. A continually growing number of fans flock to their local bowling alleys dressed as their favorite characters to enter trivia contests and sip on White Russians. If that’s not enough, the film has also spawned its own religion – Dudeism – that spreads the laid back philosophy of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski.

Constantly re-watchable and endlessly quotable, The Big Lebowski succeeds primarily because of its characters and setting. The plot loosely evokes the feeling of a Raymond Chandler detective novel, and the movie’s protagonist remains a disengaged narrator who never actively participates in the mystery he has been thrust into.  Instead, The Dude is forced into increasingly odd situations as he fruitlessly attempts to discover who kidnapped The Big Lebowski’s wife, sometimes with the help of a force-of-nature war vet, Walter, (Goodman), and mild Donny(Steve Buscemi). Along the way, The Dude meets a trio of nihilists, makes love to a feminist avant-garde artist played by Julianne Moore (who specializes in painting while nude), and gets involved with a pornography kingpin and loan shark looking for one of the Lebowskis to pay up. If that’s not weird enough, there’s also a marmot in a bathtub, a failed history test in the back of a stolen car, and human ashes being unsuccessfully scattered to the winds.

Ultimately a movie about nothing, Lebowski succeeds primarily because the Coen brothers have a wry sense of humor and an eye for making a layered, technically brilliant motion picture. Depending on your frame of mind and what time you watch the movie, Lebowski can range from broad slapstick to black comedy. It’s also subtle to the point where you can watch it ten times and still not catch every joke. I admit it even convinced me to hate a band I had once respected, and I now freely join The Dude in claiming, “I hate the f---ing Eagles!” The best small-screen equivalent to The Big Lebowski would be the similarly misunderstood series, “Arrested Development,” which also contains an intertwining narrative structure, complex storytelling, and dry comedic timing.

Simply put, The Big Lebowski is like a fine wine (or White Russian if you must) since it just keeps getting better with age. A simple cult classic stands the test of time because it offers something out-of-the-ordinary for a mainstream audience to grasp, and by getting its subtle references we feel like we’re part of a secret club.  But The Big Lebowski succeeds on an even more universal scale because it’s not just a cult film, it’s a well-rounded movie that defies structure or classification. As Sam Elliot’s mysterious narrator recounts, ”The Dude abides. I don’t know about you but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.”