How the characters of ‘The Big Lebowski’ tie the movie together

”The Big Lebowski”
Released March 6, 1998
Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen

Way back in the 90s, there was a movie I want to tell you about, a flick by the name of “The Big Lebowski.” Now, audiences back then didn’t have much use for the movie and didn’t know what to make of its expansive plot or cast of characters. But now, it’s considered one of the most popular and iconic films of the 90s. What did everybody miss the first time?

A comedy masquerading as a mystery, the movie introduces us to the lifestyle of the Dude (Jeff Bridges), a Los Angeles layabout who spends his considerable idle days bowling, drinking White Russians, and getting high. When a couple of hired goons mistakenly harass the Dude, born Jeffrey Lebowski, for another man with the same name, he passively becomes the central figure in a kidnapping case when the other Lebowski’s wife Bunny (Tara Reid) goes missing. More and more characters are drawn into the orbit of the Dude because of the case, including the “Big” Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), his alienated experimental artist daughter Maude (Julianne Moore), a porn producer (Ben Gazzera), a trio of German nihilists, a high school student, a detective, and the Dude’s best friends Walter (John Goodman) and Donnie (Steve Buscemi).

We could talk more about the plot, but the story is ludicrous. Inspired by the writings of mystery crime writer Raymond Chandler, the Coens weave a tale that has many twists and turns that baffled audiences and critics upon release. But while people were trying to make heads or tails of what was going on, the filmmakers spent more time creating and crafting the unique personalities who come into the film, making each individual deep enough to be the lead characters of their own stories. The joke is that each of them is so radically different in social status, intelligence, philosophy, and temperament that they would usually never interact with each other, but the events of the story force them to. The most engaging conflict for the audience is not the story, but watching these polarizing people attempting to understand, interact, and ultimately clash with one another.

At the center of all this is the Dude, a man who appreciates the easy things in life. He’s not particularly interested in doing anything that sounds like hard work, and only gets himself involved in resolving the kidnapping plot because he gets a big payday for it. Listening to the Dude throughout the film, you get the sense that the events of “The Big Lebowski” is just another bizarre adventure for him that happens regularly, like his past as a member of the Seattle Seven, or his original draft of the Port Huron Statement before it was compromised. Things happen to him, and the Dude’s success in overcoming obstacles comes not by taking action, but allowing his sheer inertia to continue until the problems resolve himself. The character has become a modern philosopher in a pop-culture-obsessed era just by being himself, and the Dude abides. Say what you want about his commitment to laziness, but at least it’s an ethos.

Bridges, who infuses the Coen’s precise scripting and dialogue with a career-best performance vividly brings the Dude to life. It would be too easy to dismiss the Dude as a pot-addled moron, but not with Bridges, who underplays the character’s intelligence behind his easy-going nature. The Dude stumbles, fails, and is caught off-guard throughout the movie, but by reacting with pauses, mumbles, and glances, Bridges makes sure to express how he’s learning and adapting along the way. New shit is coming to light, and the Dude is keeping up. While nearly every character thinks the Dude is a disposable fool, he is the one that ultimately solves the case before everyone else. While his victory is incredibly short-lived, his core self never changes or is compromised through the story, and thus, smoothly goes back to embracing his Dude lifestyle. “I can’t be worried about that shit,” the Dude says in the movie. “Life goes on, man.” The Dude is fully-realized and executed perfectly by the Coens and Bridges to become one of the cinema’s most famous characters. Thanks to that, we 100 percent believe that the Dude will continue to take it easy for all us sinners out there.

Among the Dude’s inner circle is Walter, and on paper, it’s utterly bizarre that they’re friends. A divorced Vietnam veteran, Walter is a pent-up ball of tension with a history of heartbreak and loss informing his aggression. He can go from controlled conversation to full-body explosion in a heartbeat, and you couldn’t imagine a more opposite personality standing next to the Dude. And yet despite their occasional arguments, the Dude and Walter are closer to brothers than teammates, offering unconditional support of one another regardless of the situation. The small insights we get into Walter’s past reveal another character who lived a full life before the beginning of the movie, and is worthy of his own full-length feature himself. Even the third member of the trio — the quiet, demure Donnie — had a side hobby of surfing. It’s another example of a small reveal that completely recontextualizes the character we thought we knew.

The Coens brought richness to every one of the characters, big and small, so they are not merely devices to move the plot or protagonist forward, but are engaging people on their own merits. The big Jeffrey Lebowski proclaims himself as a self-made man, which sounds much more impressive in light of his disability as a war veteran. We find out later that his status isn’t as he says it is (which is sadly still a relevant characteristic of our times), but the interesting thing about Lebowski is the language and vocabulary he uses. The Coens took careful attention to make each character sound unique. As the Big Lebowski leans into proclamations and monologues using higher vocabulary than the Dude, he would seem more at home in a film like “Citizen Kane” than a pot bowling comedy. His daughter Maude may dislike her father, but she too is prone to overselling her work and art career, and affects an accent when she speaks to secure her status in social situations. Again we encounter fully developed lead characters from other worlds who have entered the Dude’s orbit for a time, and the fascination comes from seeing them interact.

As if we needed any more proof, one of the side characters of “The Big Lebowski” is the center of his own movie in 2020. John Turturro starred in “Lebowski” as a sex offender and competitive league bowler Jesus Quintana, a small part made instantly memorable thanks to his stylized introduction set to a Mexican cover of “Hotel California.” Two decades later, Turturro wrote and directed his own movie “The Jesus Rolls” to revive the character. Theoretically, it could have been Walter, Maude, Brandt, Jackie Treehorn, Smokey, the Nihilists, or even the Stranger featuring in their own film. Even the straight people here are weirdoes in their way, and in their interactions with the Dude, their real personalities reveal themselves.

Sadly, the Dude did not have his day at the box office. When “The Big Lebowski” was released in March of 1998, it didn’t even make the top five of its opening weekend, as people were still loving “Titanic.” They were also more interested in two new movies that have been erased from cultural memory, “Hush” and “Twilight” (the one starring Paul Newman). A sequel to “The Fugitive,” “U.S. Marshalls,” also commanded more attention. “The Big Lebowski” also had mixed reviews, as the Coens were coming off of their most acclaimed picture from 1996, “Fargo.” The unusual ending to “Lebowski” probably didn’t help, and was promptly ignored by the public and industry.

I worked at a movie theater when “Lebowski” was released, and I immediately fell in love with the humor and vibe of the film. My friends and I would sneak in during breaks to catch various scenes, and at times, we’d be the only ones laughing in the theater. As an early fan, I bought the DVD when it was released and loaned it out often, making new fans. My friends and I would spend nights going out for drinks, cracking ourselves up with lines from the movie, and then go back to someone’s place to watch the DVD again.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this experience was common as more and more people discovered the film after its theatrical run. The Internet was starting to take off as a conversation hub, and “Lebowski” fans were finding each other online. Soon there were conventions and then media stories talking about the growing cult fandom of “Lebowski.” The Coens continued on in their careers to earn more awards, nominations, and acclaim from critics and award bodies. As their reputations grew, reviews of their filmography continued to push “The Big Lebowski” further and further up the list of their best movies. Finally, “The Big Lebowski” can abide.

Two decades later, what we all remember most about “The Big Lebowski” are the unique, funny personalities that inhabit that world. The Coens would go on to craft many more memorable characters throughout their incredible career, including Anton Chigurh, Barton Fink, Marge Gunderson, Chad Feldheimer, and Llewyn Davis. But when it comes to quality and quantity of people, “The Big Lebowski” stands apart from the rest, with the Dude lounging comfortably at the top as the man for his time and place. He fits right in there, and that’s the Dude, in “The Big Lebowski.”

The Weekend: Choosing “The Big Lebowski” as the Ultimate Movie of the week was an easy decision for me, as it’s one of my favorite films, and the Coens are two of my favorite directors. However, the rules stipulate we must limit each director to one movie, and the Coens are indeed in a class of filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, and a few others who made several masterpieces that are worthy of consideration. Almost everybody would say “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men” are the two other undisputed masterpieces from the Coens, and I’d consider some others like “Raising Arizona,” “Burn After Reading,” and “A Serious Man” not far behind. In these cases, you’re trying to find an excellent representative film of that director, but also one that stands out during a specific weekend. Fortunately, “The Big Lebowski” was released during a relatively quiet weekend historically that it became an obvious choice for both the director(s) and schedule.

Speaking of “Fargo,” that was also released this weekend back in 1996. Starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, and Buscemi, the wintery Midwest crime movie is absolutely incredible and, from start to finish, probably a slightly better movie than “The Big Lebowski.” So why “Lebowski” and not “Fargo?” The Dude and friends are just more rewatchable, so it edges out Sherriff Margie. The Coens are also behind the 1994 screwball comedy, “The Hudsucker Proxy,” starring Tim Robbins as a young businessman who finds himself at the top of a manufacturing company. It’s worth checking out even if it’s not as well-remembered as the other films by the Coens.

“The Hudsucker Proxy” also shared a release date in 1994 with “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” the movie that made Hugh Grant a worldwide star and leading man, while “Fargo” debuted on the same day as “The Birdcage,” the 1996 farce remake directed by Mike Nichols. “The Birdcage” stars Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a gay couple attempting to assimilate as “a normal family” for the sake of their son, engaged to the daughter of a conservative senator played by Gene Hackman, who is excellent here and excellent in everything he does.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe continued its dominance at the box office with the 2019 release of “Captain Marvel,” starring Academy Award-winning actress Brie Larson in the title role. It was the first female-led superhero film from Marvel Studios and made over a billion dollars at the box office, much to the chagrin of nerdy sexists upset that all 21 of 21 MCU movies didn’t star men. Misogyny must be exhausting.

Decades earlier, Hollywood stars didn’t assemble in superhero films, but natural disaster thrillers. 1970’s “Airport” featured an all-star cast including Dean Martin, Burt Lancaster, and Jacqueline Bisset trying to survive a flight hijacked by a bomber in the middle of a snowstorm. It was a massive hit at the time, the equivalent of a Marvel movie nowadays.

Other notable films released in week 10 include 1980’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” with Best Actress winner Sissy Spacek; Ron Howard’s directorial debut in 1984’s “Splash;” the 1986 cult classic “Highlander;” the original “Lethal Weapon” in 1987; the Wesley Snipes crime lord classic “New Jack City” from 1991; the Howard Stern biography “Private Parts” which starred the radio host himself in 1997; 1999’s “Cruel Intentions” featuring the modern teenage update of “Les Liaisons dangereuses;” Zack Snyder’s stylized Roman epic “300” from 2006; the Tim Burton adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” in 2010; Wes Anderson’s beautifully heartbreaking “The Grand Budapest Hotel” from 2014; the 2016 Disney animated film “Zootopia;” and Olivier Assayas’s 2017 haunting drama “Personal Shopper.”

Next Week: “The Godfather”

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Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on March 5, 2020.

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Mark Ciemcioch

Mark Ciemcioch

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