The Big Lebowski (1998)

Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Sam Elliott, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reid, David Huddleston, David Thewlis, Peter Stormare, Flea, and Dom Irrera
Grade: Classic

Any movie poking fun at nihilism is probably going to win me over.


Around the time of the Gulf War in 1991 Los Angeles, California, there lived a man named Jeffrey Lebowski (Bridges), though he calls himself “The Dude” as explained through narration by “The Stranger” (Elliott). The Dude may not be a hero but more of a guy who just found himself in a certain spot in a certain time. He’s laidback, lazy (quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which could put him in the running for laziest in the world), and he’s a nice guy. After seeing him in his robe at the grocery store opening some half and half before buying it and paying for it with a check, he heads back to his lowly apartment. Upon entering, he’s attacked by two men who demand money they’re owed, with one guy saying Bunny (Reid) said he’s good for it. The one guy who shoves his head in the toilet several times over tells Dude that “his” wife owes money to Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), which means he owes money to Jackie Treehorn. As he says this, the other guy pisses on Dude’s carpet. After calling him Lebowski over and over again, Dude explains that no one calls him that and he’s not married. They have the wrong guy. The guy these two are looking for may have the same name, but Dude has nothing to do with him. Realizing the Lebowski they are supposed to be attacking is a millionaire and Dude is clearly not, the two men leave in a haste.

Later, Dude meets with his two best friends Walter Sobchak (Goodman) and Donny (Buscemi) for some bowling, something they do weekly. Once Dude tells them what happened, Walter is convinced Dude has to do something about it and says they need to find the other Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston) and have him compensate Dude for the pissed-on rug. The next day, Dude goes to Lebowski’s place and is shown around by Lebowski’s assistant Brandt (Hoffman). Brandt shows Dude the various awards and pictures of famous people Lebowski has met over the years, but Dude reacts nonchalantly to all of it. Eventually, the wheelchair bound Lebowski enters the room. Fully aware of what happened to Dude and his rug, he still doesn’t see why he should compensate him for his troubles. He refuses to help and continues to insult Dude for trying to argue. When Dude brings up Lebowski’s wife, he flips out and says it’s her problem if she can’t figure out how to live on the ample allowance that he already gives her. Doubling down, he tells Dude the rug problem is his own as well. He continues to yell and call him a bum, so Dude leaves the room. When Brandt asks him how the meeting went, Dude tells him that Lebowski said he could grab any rug in the house upon leaving. As two workers bring a rug to his car, Dude sees Bunny painting her toenails outside in the sun. He goes over to introduce himself and she has him blow on her toes. Dude sees Uli (Stormare) on a pool floatie, drunk and passed out, and asks if he would be okay with it. Bunny says it’s not a problem because he’s a nihilist and doesn’t care about anything. Once Brandt interrupts the two, Bunny offers to suck Dude’s cock for a $1000. As Brandt nervously laughs, he pulls Dude away and has him leave while passing off Bunny as a free spirit and such.

At the bowling alley, Dude, Walter, and Donny have a league game. Walter shows up with his ex-wife Cynthia’s dog because he’s watching it for her while her and her boyfriend are on vacation in Hawaii. He can’t leave it home because it’ll eat the furniture. As the two argue over Walter not only bringing the dog inside but doing such a favor for his ex-wife, Walter flips the fuck out after he sees a player from the opposing team named Smokey (Jimmie Dale Gilmore) step over the line during his turn. Walter calls it a foul and wants it to be marked as “0” because this is a league game, but Smokey doesn’t think he stepped over. Dude is caught in the middle of it all because he’s marking the score sheet. They continue to go back and forth until Walter pulls out his gun and points it directly at him. Smokey relents. Afterwards, Dude and Walter head to the car, and Dude tries to explain to Walter that he can’t do shit like that because Smokey is a fragile conscientious objector and Dude himself is a pacifist. As he tells him to calm down and Walter insisting everything is fine and how he’s already focused on their next league game, the cops pull up to the bowling alley. Thankfully, they’re already in the car. The next day, Dude is in his apartment making a white Russian and gets a message from Smokey who says they will submit the incident to the league and will either call for them to set aside the round or get a forfeit. The next message is from Brandt asking for Dude to call back, and the final message is from a guy from the bowling league calling about the Walter incident. This is interrupted by a knock on the door. It’s Dude’s landlord Marty (Jack Kehler).

He got the venue for his dance quintet and wants Dude to come to give him notes. Always the nice guy, Dude agrees to come. Then, Marty shyly reminds him that his rent is due tomorrow and for him to just slip it under his door when he can.

Dude goes back inside and hears another voicemail from Brandt asking again for him to call, promising to send a limo to pick him up. He says the rug thing isn’t a problem. They just need his help, and they would like to see him. Sometime after, Dude goes back to Lebowski’s to see what’s the matter. There, Lebowski is in seclusion in the West Wing and Brandt takes Dude there. An emotional Lebowski explains Bunny has been kidnapped and they’re asking for one million dollars. Brandt shows him the ransom note and takes him outside of the room. On Lebowski’s behalf, Brandt explains that Lebowski is willing to pay Dude to act as courier once they get instructions for the money. He believes the culprits are the same people who pissed on Dude’s rug and he’s the only one who can confirm it, which puts Dude in a position to accept. At the bowling alley, eccentric bowler and registered sex offender Jesus Quintana (Turturro) crushes his game. Dude and the crew watch as they sit and talk about how Dude accepted Lebowski’s offer and got $20,000 out of it. Plus, they let him keep the rug he stole. They gave him a beeper for when the carpet-pissers contact them. Dude sees the whole thing as a low-risk situation because there’s a chance Bunny “kidnapped” herself to extort more money out of Lebowski since she owes money all over town. Eventually, Jesus makes his way over to them and talks trash to them concerning their eventual bowling match. He also brings up Walter’s incident with the gun and says if he tries that with him, he’ll stick the gun up Walter’s ass and pull the trigger until they hear the click. Unphased, Walter reminds Dude that Quintana is a sex offender.

Back at home, Dude’s place gets broken into again as he listens to recordings of a bowling league playoff game from 1987. This time it’s Maude Lebowski (Moore) with her two henchmen. They knock him out and steal his rug. Following a dream sequence taken place during his unconscious state, he wakes up to hear his beeper going off. Soon after, he goes to Lebowski’s place and Brandt gives him the instructions he got. He is to go alone with the money, take north on the 405, and they will call on a portable phone with further instructions in 40 minutes. He’s given the briefcase full of money and the phone to answer the call. Brandt is adamant in Dude doing whatever the kidnappers’ instructions are. Soon after, Dude picks up Walter anyway, who decides to drive. He gives Dude a “ringer”, another suitcase they can use as bait. It’s filled with his underwear to mask its weight as equal to the amount of money they’re supposed to bring. Dude is flipping out now because Walter has it in his head that “they” (as he is including himself on this) shouldn’t settle for $20,000 and should use the ringer to keep the full million. As Walter reminds Dude’s theory of Bunny potentially kidnapping herself, they are interrupted by the kidnappers who call the phone. While Dude asks for a location, he accidentally mentions that someone else is with him, which was directly against their order of coming alone. They angrily hang up, and Dude yells at Walter, though Walter insists everything is fine because they’re dealing with amateurs. Immediately after, they call back and still agree to proceed as long as there isn’t any other funny stuff.

The two drive to the location and Walter lays out his plan of saving Bunny: They make the handoff and Walter beats one of them up to get her location. When they approach the bridge, the kidnappers call and tell Dude to throw the bag out of the left window of the moving car. Walter refuses to comply because this fucks up his terrible plan, so when they get on the bridge, he throws the ringer out instead and has Dude grab the wheel. When they hit 15mph, Walter jumps out of the car to attack one of the guys and takes his Uzi with him. Unfortunately, the Uzi goes off when it hits the ground and shoots up Dude’s car. Dude crashes into a pole, the kidnappers leave with the ringer, and Walter never reaches them because he crashed and burned on the road. Dude tries to yell for their attention to give them the right briefcase, but it’s to no avail. Unphased, Walter says they should go bowling. At the bowling alley, a distraught Dude sits there as his phone is ringing off the hook because their actions may have caused the death of Bunny. Walter is still 100% convinced she kidnapped herself and isn’t worried at all. The only thing that does make him flip out is when Donny tells them their league game is scheduled for Saturday, which is Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. Because of this, he refuses and wants the game rescheduled. As Dude still panics over what actually matters, Water points out everything is fine because they’re still sitting on a million dollars in the trunk of Dude’s car. Unfortunately, the three walk outside to see Dude’s car has been stolen.

The problems have just gotten started for Dude, and it will only get crazier from here.

My Thoughts:

Some films may be released under the radar and don’t find their fanbase until years later. Following years of retrospective viewings though, these movies that were initially forgotten about become reappraised, as people start to realize how good the film really is and how they just didn’t pay attention the first time around. This happens a lot. Generally, these specific productions not getting recognition from the beginning, and why they may have underperformed at the box office, was either because of timing, a bad marketing campaign from a studio unsure on how to label the film for the viewing public, or being so different that the general public didn’t know how to react. Of course, I’m talking about the term “cult film”. The Big Lebowski is THE cult film. Though people didn’t understand its genius upon its arrival in 1998, it has since grown in popularity and is considered to be one of the greatest comedies ever made. The fanbase is far and wide too. In any circle of friends that you have encountered over the years, whether it was in college or adulthood, there’s a solid chance that someone will reference the film in conversation at least once, with a follow-up question of, “Have you ever seen The Big Lebowski?”. Two courses I had in college covered the film and its ideals as part of the curriculum, and my favorite professor would regularly quote the movie any chance he would get. It’s on countless “Best of” lists and is almost universally loved as one of the most off-kilter crime features ever produced. Basically, The Big Lebowski is everything your dad told you it was and more.

As his typical with the incredible writing of Joel and Ethan Cohen, The Big Lebowski thrives on its eccentric characters, some of the most well-crafted dialogue you may ever see (and not appreciate at first), and an intricate, wacky plot to keep the audience and the characters completely on their toes. Inspired by the works of author Raymond Chandler, the brothers construct this story by making the details of the mystery as complex as possible. There’s a potential hostage situation, there’s a character with the same birth name as the protagonist, there’s embezzling, there’s an artist who wants a baby and hates her father, the porn industry is somehow involved because the wife owes money to a producer, and there are a group of nihilists in the middle of it all looking to cash in on the hostage. In true Chandler fashion however, it’s made in a way where the more complicated things seem to get, and more characters and side plots get woven into the main plot, most of it turns out to be relatively unimportant, something the characters initially guess anyway. This is what makes our protagonist the perfect main character for a story such as this. Here, all of these details are thrown in at every angle, and “The Dude” finds himself in the middle of it all because it’s his luck. Even so, Dude’s actions are intriguing from a screenwriter’s perspective because he operates as if he refuses to engage and be a serious part of the story, despite being the main character. A real shamus would try to get to the bottom of things, but the Dude is no sleuth. The pseudo-detective in Dude does his best to keep his ears and eyes open, but if he doesn’t figure things out, he’s cool with this just as well. Thus, the entertainment begins right from the outset. He’s not the hero the story needs, but he’s the character this movie needs, which is where the humor comes in.

The Dude is a slacker from Los Angeles with a positive attitude and no ambitions or goals of any kind. He lounges around, likes bowling with his friends, and enjoys being this beacon of positivity, so much so that when he does get a bit agitated, his best friend Walter will mention how he’s being very “un-Dude” to try and bring him back. The only reason Dude finds himself in the middle of this bizarre crime story is that he feels slighted because of two thugs breaking into his home and kicking his ass because they think he’s the other Lebowski. Actually, it’s not even that. He’s more bothered by the fact that one of the guy’s pissed on his rug during the attack, with them both being referred to as the “carpet-pissers” for the rest of the film. He doesn’t want to extort the “Big” Lebowski for millions, though Dude knows he’s worth a lot. All Dude wants is a rug to replace his ruined one because this fraud millionaire is directly responsible for the mistake.

Plus, it really tied the room together, man!

Once he takes a rug from Lebowski’s mansion, Dude is totally fine with rinsing his hands of the whole mess. Brandt and Lebowski are the people that bring him back in after offering him money for help with the money drop and the kidnapping fiasco. It’s worth saying that if they never called Dude again, none of this would’ve happened and Dude would have been perfectly fine with his life as is. This is what makes the rest of the movie such a delight because Dude is pulled into this absurd mystery to help solve it, despite having no discernible skills nor a dog in the fight to truly care, other than potentially trying to save an “innocent” woman he doesn’t know. Even when Lebowski explains his heartfelt plight to Dude about his wife being taken by kidnappers as he gets emotional in front of the fireplace, the uncaring Dude asks in the middle of his monologue, “You mind if I do a jay?”. This is a hero like no one we’ve ever seen before or since. In a contentious moment like the meeting with porn kingpin Jackie Treehorn, most of us would understand we’re in danger and may not accept a drink from someone with such a strange aura, but the Dude is cool at all times. Even when he’s trying to act like a detective, when he’s offered a second drink, he can’t help himself saying, “Yeah, does the pope shit in the woods?”. Because of his lack of help, knowledge, and learning things from scene to scene but not truly understanding any of it or caring enough to delve deeper into the details, Dude’s car gets destroyed, he’s robbed, and his life is threatened on a few occasions, but it’s whatever, you know?

As Walter would say, “Fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling”.

No matter how serious the situation gets, they always do too. Even when Dude flips out at Walter fucking everything up over the phone, he pauses and still confirms he’ll be at practice. This is a man who knows his priorities.

Whether Dude gets his ass kicked by some reactionary cop in Malibu, drugged by Treehorn, or when he loses the money in the first place that seemingly jeopardizes the entire trajectory of the story, he just abides with what happens and goes with the flow of things. As he says to the limo driver after blowing the entire mission because of Walter’s fuck up, he shakes it off while he’s got his drink in his hand saying, “Fuck it, man. Can’t be worried about that shit. Life goes on, man”. Despite the growing problems the Dude finds himself in, he can’t help but let things go in a positive manner, and he puts the audience at ease with his calming vibe. He’s unemployed, has a nice drug regiment to keep his mind limber, and enjoys a White Russian almost everywhere he goes. When he’s told directly from Lebowski that he sent the kidnappers after Dude following him presenting the severed toe that he’s indirectly responsible for, and following a heated argument with Walter at a diner, what does he do? He goes to his bungalow, lights some candles, takes a bath, and smokes some weed. What else can you do? Fuck it, man. Of course, the hilarity stems from something pulling him right back in when he’s on the outskirts. So, as soon as he takes his bath and gets in some relaxation time, the nihilists break in and throw a ferret into his bath and threaten to cut off his dick. In the role of a lifetime, Jeff Bridges makes “The Dude” one of the most effortlessly funny characters of all time. Whether you call him “His Dudeness”, “Duder”, or “El Duderino”, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing of course, Dude is so laidback it bothers people, and so many elements work hard to disrupt his everyday life. Nevertheless, no one can deter Dude, and he’ll work even harder (or even less actually) to enjoy life one day at a time, no matter what happens.

The only thing that outright bothers him is The Eagles, but “Fuckin’ A” man!

The Big Lebowski is also in contention for being one of the most quotable films to ever exist. Virtually everything coming from John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak is hysterical. He’s an all-time supporting character and should’ve been nominated by the Academy at the very least. His bi-polar responses and personal stances on topics get you laughing at every turn. For every outburst like when he points a gun at an opposing bowler who was a conscientious objector (“You’re entering a world of pain”) or throwing a paraplegic out of his wheelchair, he will turn into a calm, almost delusional soul in a heartbeat, telling Dude how he is the one who can’t bring such a negative energy into their upcoming tournament. Though the Dude wouldn’t get as far as he did without Walter’s help, he also wouldn’t be in danger at all if it wasn’t for Walter’s insistence on Dude needing to get even in the first place. When a new wrinkle is added to the story, Walter always has something to say about it and his mind cannot be changed on what he believes. As soon as Uli and his group are inserted into the picture, Walter plainly states “fucking Germans. Nothing changes”. However, when he learns they are nihilists, you can’t help but appreciate the joke-telling and certain thought-out details of the dialogue stemming from the Cohens, along with Goodman’s expert delivery, as his handle and understanding of who Walter is strengthens the value of the film tenfold. Besides the fact that they are threatening his best friend, Walter is more bothered about who they are, explaining hilariously how you can say whatever you want about the tenants of national socialism but defending it by saying at least it’s an ethos. Nihilism is just cowardice in his eyes and though they are threatened with death in the climax of the movie, Walter is even more confident in the moment because of his personal, unmoving stance on him believing that they aren’t jack shit.

It’s such an interesting character to watch develop with the story and almost every line he speaks is just as quotable as Dude’s. His constant attempts to relate the day-to-day happenings of their lives to Vietnam including in the final minutes of the film is hysterical. It gets even better when Dude has enough of the nonsense to where he even breaks to flip out on Walter, the only person who is able to bring him out of his constant Zen-like state. Finding ways to include another Vietnam reference in this delectable screenplay must have brought the brothers hours of laughter. The reason I say this is because of moments like when Dude talks about how he’s a pacifist and Walter says he “dabbled in pacifism” but not when he was in ‘Nam of course. An exchange like this doesn’t need to be there, but it’s like they’re enjoying Walter’s ridiculous so much that they had to include more, and you can’t help but laugh. What’s even more impressive with this screenplay is that you find something new to laugh at with every rewatch. Do you realize how rare this is? Besides the obviously funny stuff everyone quotes like Dude’s repeating of “This aggression will not stand” or the nihilists making sure everyone knows “We believe in nothing!”, I find myself laughing even more at Dude’s attempts at being poetic like quoting Lenin and getting lost mid-quote, his stammering and trying to make up a good explanation in real time when thrown in the back of Lebowski’s car when they ask what happened to the money, or when Maude shows Dude the porno flick that Bunny is in while staunchly telling him, “The plot is ludicrous”.

When a movie becomes a gift that keeps on giving with each watch, it enters a tier very few movies have been lucky enough to get to.

Every character with a line is noteworthy. Sam Elliott’s voice is tailor-made to narrate a story like this, and anytime someone like Tara Reid plainly states she’ll suck someone’s cock for a thousand dollars, you’d be hard pressed to forget her. Julianne Moore is unforgettable and unsettling as the rigid yet wildly sexual artist Maude Lebowski, whose entire catalogue is about the vagina, and John Turturro’s short but extremely memorable performance as noted sex offender and bowling ball licker Jesus Quintana may be one of the insane supporting characters of the 1990s. Even though it’s a small role, it just adds even more layers of pure hilarity to the legend that is The Big Lebowski. Now, did he deserve a solo spinoff film? Fuck no, but my review on Turturro’s The Jesus Rolls is coming up soon.

Again, the genius is how far the movie goes before you stop caring just as the Dude does. You’re trying to keep your bearings and understand the details as it goes. Okay, Maude took the rug back that Dude stole because it belonged to her deceased mother. She’s on the board of directors of the Little Achievers fund with Lebowski and knows he took the $1 million out of there to pay the ransom. Now, she wants Dude to get the money back and she’ll give him 10% of the recovered sum. Meanwhile, a cut toe is sent in the mail to prove Bunny is being harmed and to kill off Dude’s theory that she kidnapped herself to extort money to pay off the money she owes, though Walter doesn’t believe it for a second and wants to stick with Dude’s initial theory. Even so, Lebowski puts the blame on Dude and tells the kidnappers to come after him instead. Then, you’re still not sure of what’s true and what’s not because Maude doesn’t believe in the kidnapping because she notes that Uli was Bunny’s co-star in the porn film and used to be a part of a techno pop group in the 70s. You’re probably thinking, “Wait, what? What is this all leading to?”. This is the Dude’s dilemma but instead of trying to understand every angle, you have to look at The Big Lebowski like the Dude would because that’s the point. None of it really matters.

“Fuck it, man. Can’t be worried about that shit. Life goes on, man”.

When you look at from the intended perspective, you realize how entertaining the movie actually is and why these added side stories and supporting characters are inserted more to juice up a plot that has an endgame of nothingness. In fact, Dude was essentially brought in to fuck things up because it was virtually a guarantee that he would fuck things up. When you realize how this all could have been avoided and our main characters are running around in circles trying to fix things when they were never supposed to, you start to enjoy the randomness of Walter and Dude interrogating 9th grad brat Larry and his father who wrote 200 episodes for a television show but is now currently in an iron lung. Actually, at one point, Dude realizes the same thing. He could have just accepted the fact that he has a carpet with piss stains on it. Sadly, he instead finds himself in some neighborhood in the middle of the night waking everyone up as two cars get destroyed, with one of them being his.

The Cohen Brothers have created a lot of good-to-great films, but The Big Lebowski is their masterpiece. With the filmmakers’ classic brand of laugh-out-loud dialogue and colorful characters that have more substance in one film that most franchises haven’t been able to pull off, The Big Lebowski is the absolute zenith of chaotic storytelling and is without a doubt one of the best comedies to come out of the entire 1990s decade. It’s one of the goofiest, well-acted, spectacularly anarchic cinematic experiences that you may ever see. Everyone should watch it at some point in their life. Though Joel and Ethan may not have realized they created such a legacy with one of the most eccentric films to ever grace the theater, all of us sinners knew it as soon as Jeff Bridges walked into that supermarket with his robe on. It’s a calming feeling knowing someone like the Dude is out there somewhere. I don’t know about you, but I think they take comfort in that too. Now, grab a couple of oat sodas and enjoy. Also, leave out some Kahlua in honor of “El Duderino”. It’s the least you can do.

The Big Lebowski has earned every bit of praise that it gets. You may disagree, but “…well, you know, that’s just like uh, your opinion man”.

Fun Fact: Robert Duvall was considered to play “Big” Jeffrey Lebowski but didn’t like the script. Jack Nicholson, Anthony Hopkins, Gene Hackman, Tommy Lee Jones, Michael Caine, James Coburn, George C. Scott, Andy Griffith, Ernest Borgnine, Ned Beatty, Bruce Dern, Rod Steiger, Fred Ward, Peter Boyle, Lloyd Bridges, Jonathan Winters, Charles Durning, Jackie Cooper, Richard Mulligan, Paul Dooley, Pat Hingle, Norman Mailer, Jerry Falwell, Gore Vidal, and William F. Buckley were also considered. The Cohens’ top choice was Marlon Brando though. Charlize Theron was considered for the role of Bunny, and David Cross auditioned for the role of Brandt. They also pitched to Mel Gibson to play “The Dude”, but he reportedly didn’t take it too seriously.

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