“What makes The Big Lebowski seem so circuitous is that, in moving from A to B to C, the plot keeps dawdling at points of interest along the way, stopping to admire the scenery before picking up and moving on. That’s essentially what Quintana and Brandt and Da Fino are: local color. It’s a movie about the pleasure of the journey, not the arrival at the destination.”
A urine-stained carpet. A briefcase full of undies. A Folgers can full of human ashes. A check for sixty-nine cents. A Yorkshire Terrier (mislabeled a Pomeranian). A weasel (mislabeled a marmot). An Uzi submachine gun wrapped in brown paper. A homework assignment in a sandwich baggie. A severed pinkie toe … with nail polish, of course.
Should this miscellany mean anything to you, then you are most likely a fan of The Big Lebowski (1998). If, however, it doesn’t, then go to Netflix immediately and put this film at the top of your queue, for you have somehow missed out on one of the fundamental cultural experiences of our time, not to mention one of the greatest films of the last quarter century, born from the brains of Hollywood’s most talented twosome: the Coen brothers. The movie is a detective story (sort of), the P.I. in this case being an out-of-work, aging hippie named Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) who prefers to go by the name “the Dude.” Though the Dude would rather spend his time bowling with his two best friends — Walter (John Goodman), a cantankerous Vietnam vet, and Donny (Steve Buscemi), a mild-mannered surfer who can’t open his mouth without being cut short by Walter — he gets dragged into a noirish mystery after he’s mistaken for a millionaire also named Jeffrey Lebowski. When the millionaire’s pretty wife is kidnapped, the Dude is put on the case, acting as bagman for the million-dollar ransom. Pretty soon the money goes missing, and the Dude is left to pick up the clues, which means tangling with German nihilists, a teenage car thief, a Malibu pornographer, an abusive police chief, and a seductive redhead (Julianne Moore) who, of course, wants to land him in bed. The movie, in case you haven’t already guessed, was inspired by the novels of Raymond Chandler, particularly his 1939 thriller, The Big Sleep. The joke is that Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s detective, was sharp-tongued, quick-witted, and physically brawny. (“A tough guy. Six feet of iron man. One hundred and ninety pounds stripped and with [my] face washed. Hard muscles and no glass jaw,” is his own modest assessment of himself.1) The Dude, on the other hand, is a hapless stoner, so lost for words that he has to fall back on repeating expressions he’s overheard, and ambling through the Los Angeles underworld in a hoodie, plastic sandals, and faded, striped shorts. What the two detectives share is a milieu where the texture of the whodunit, not the solution, is the raison d’etre of the story. Like Chandler fans, aficionados of The Big Lebowski care little about the movie’s plot but worship its dialogue, wit, and the menagerie of colorful characters it has to offer.
So what is it that makes The Big Lebowski so funny? How does one describe the movie to a person who’s never seen it? Judging by the account above, you might take it to be a broad parody, a la Young Frankenstein (1974), where the filmmakers lampoon a genre by inflating its tropes to the point of hilarity. Not so. There is no mention of gats or heaters or Roscoes, nor dames, nor dolls, nor molls, and you need not have read a word of Chandler or Hammett to pick up on the jokes. Indeed, more than one fan I’ve encountered has actually seemed perplexed when I first suggested that the movie was a detective story. Part of the problem, as anyone who has seen the film knows, is that it’s devilishly hard to classify, wriggling free of any single category you try to tuck it into. On the one hand, it’s a buddy comedy, like a Laurel and Hardy routine, about an odd couple friendship; on the other, it’s a sports film, eulogizing the underappreciated pleasures of team bowling. It’s a social satire as well as a comedy of errors. It has the elements of a mystery, a western, a musical, and a stoner comedy all wrapped into one. The trick of the movie is that it doesn’t get bogged down in any single one of these genres but dances over them lightly, borrowing the best elements from each.
The dialogue is not memorable in the way the dialogue in Casablanca (1942) or Annie Hall (1977) is memorable, with crisp, epigrammatic one-liners and droll asides. The cleverness doesn’t leap from the page as it does in a Billy Wilder screenplay. Yet it is one of the most quotable films of all time, a fact substantiated by the scores of t-shirts bearing lines from the movie: “The Dude abides,” “Hey, nice marmot,” “I don’t roll on Shabbas,” and, perhaps most popular of all, “You’re entering a world of pain.” The makers of that final t-shirt, however, erred in abridging the quote, which to be truly appreciated must be given in full: “Smokey, my friend, you’re entering a world of pain.” That such an elision is immediately felt tells you something about the nature of the film’s comedy: it relies on situation and intonation much more than obvious verbal cleverness. It’s funny because John Goodman says it so calmly, as though brandishing a .45 calibre handgun was the most sensible way to settle a minor bowling dispute. If you read the quote out of context, scissored of its first three words, you’d be apt to think it was bellowed in anger, which wouldn’t be half as funny as Goodman’s quiet, deadpan delivery. Consequently, many of the film’s most uproarious gags must be seen to be appreciated. Describing them in words is like photographing Yosemite with a Polaroid camera: it just doesn’t do justice to the magnificence. My own favorite scene — or at least the one I find most funny — sees the Dude, Walter, and Donny trying to recover the missing ransom from a teenage joyrider. When the teenager fails to utter even a single word, Walter (naturally) pulls out a crowbar and begins pummeling a red sports car that he assumes belongs to the young man, all the while repeating a single manic phrase: “Do you see what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass?” There’s something undeniably hilarious about that line. Without it, the scene would be more frightening than funny. But it takes Goodman to supply it with the effervescence that it lacks on the page.
Since the coming of sound so many decades ago, it has become widely accepted that physical comedy is somehow inferior to wordplay, the former springing from the vulgar lower extremities while the latter flows from the chaste, noble mind. But this sells physical comedy short. As fans of silent cinema know, Chaplin found more profundity in the dissection of a clock or a glance at a flower girl than most writers achieve in an entire screenplay. Not only do the greatest laughs derive from physical comedy but so does the greatest comic acting. Without words to hide behind, the actor is left naked on the screen, forced to carry the scene all on his own. The car-smashing scene is a perfect example. The capper to the incident is not Goodman’s bashing of the car but Bridges’ stony reaction as they drive away, after his own windshield has been shattered by the sports car’s true owner. The ability to dream up these kinds of visual cappers is the signature of a truly dexterous comedy, like a gymnast sticking a perfect landing after a performance on the parallel bars. Again and again, The Big Lebowski sets up an uproarious bit of physical humor — Walter diving clumsily from a moving car, for example, or the Dude trapped in a bathtub with an angry weasel — and then find a way to top it off: the pathetic upward lunge of the car as it strikes a telephone pole, and the elastic shiver of the weasel as it shakes the water from its body. The movie opens with two heavies breaking into the Dude’s apartment and plunging his head into his toilet before explaining that they’ve come to collect a debt owed by his wife. “My wife?” the Dude replies in disbelief. “Does this place look like I’m fucking married? The toilet seat’s up, man.” And then, with a gesture of regal pride, he reaches into the toilet bowl, retrieves his sunglasses, and places them back on his face.
None of this is to suggest some deficiency in the film’s screenplay: far from it. Though the characters may blather and rant, often tripping over their own words, nothing they say is superfluous, even when they seem to be saying nothing at all. Simply look at how much traction the Coens gets out of the word “fuck,” a term, at least when used as a curse, of notorious vagueness. In the Coen brothers’ hands, however, it becomes an exquisitely polysemous instrument, as Justus Nieland observes in his essay on the film’s language:
It can identify and condemn (“The fucking point is … “; “Fucking Quintana. That creep can roll, man!”), and can express wonder or affirmation (“Fucking A!”); it can characterize a seemingly impossible situation (“Nothing is fucked, Dude!”); it can call for referential clarity (“What the fuck are you talking about?”), become [a] form of aggression (“Are you ready to be fucked, man?”), or an unwelcome meddling (“Nobody fucks with the Jesus”).2
And that doesn’t even include its use as sexual verb (“I fuck you. I fuck you in the ass.”) and as an expression of contented resignation (“Fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling.”), the latter of which expresses the ethos of the film about as succinctly as any line in the movie.
Good dialogue doesn’t just reveal what a character thinks but what he doesn’t know he thinks or what he doesn’t want anyone else to know he thinks. In the theater, Mamet and Pinter are masters of this kind of exposition, where characters constantly talk around their intentions, thereby giving them away. In The Big Lebowski, the Coens take a more casual approach, letting their characters’ thoughts spill out during moments of anger or confusion, as their minds stumble to catch up with their tongues. Walter’s extraneous allusions to the Vietnam War (“Smokey, this is not Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.”) tell us more about his character than a whole page of straightforward dialogue, just as the Big Lebowski’s obsession with work and achievement reveal his true Achilles’ heel: that he’s no titan of industry but a fraud who depends on his daughter for financial assistance. Then there’s the Dude, with his habit of regurgitating the words of others: from Walter, from Brandt, from Maude Lebowski, and even from George H. W. Bush, who he overhears on television. While this doesn’t tell you much about the Dude that you don’t already know — namely, that he’s easily flustered and too lazy to speak for himself — it does add a level of depth to the screenplay, giving you not just the words but a window into the Dude’s mind, as well. We see how he is affected by others, and therein we see how he thinks.
Normally, you wouldn’t expect to find such verbal complexity in a stoner movie, but that’s because no stoner movie, previous to Lebowski, had been directed by the Coen brothers. The duo, from the very beginning of their careers, have shown themselves to be masters at the art of melding high and low culture. Born in 1954 and 1957 respectively, Joel and Ethan Coen were raised in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a Jewish suburb of Minneapolis. Their first forays into filmmaking began when Joel (the older of the two) was only eight. The pair saved enough money to buy an 8mm Vivitar camera, and thereafter restaged popular movies with their friends playing the protagonists. They drifted apart during college. Joel studied filmmaking at NYU, Ethan philosophy at Yale. But they came back together in their twenties to make Blood Simple (1984), an off-kilter noir that teeters between being an art house experiment and a violent exploitation movie. Raising Arizona (1987), their second film, is like a roadrunner cartoon shot in live action, with the camera diving over cars, up ladders, and zipping along the pavement as though sliding on axel grease. The tale is set in the suburban sprawl of the American Southwest, though the Arizona the protagonists live in is more a state of mind than a physical place, inhabited by escaped convicts, packs of frenzied dogs, and a ghoulish biker from Hell whose mere presence causes flowers to spontaneously combust. Yet it also contains one of the most virtuosic cold openings in cinema, along with references to William Faulkner and the Bible, all of it set to yodeling and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as played on a banjo.
In the years since, the brothers have only grown more adept at teasing audience expectations. In the opening titles of Fargo (1996), they stated that the film was based on true events — only it wasn’t. O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) similarly claims to be inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, which the brothers later admitted they’d never read. The 2001 directors’ cut of Blood Simple contains a commentary track by film historian Kenneth Loring in which he asserts that the first scene of the film was shot backwards and upside down (to get the timing of the headlights on the windshield synced with the dialogue), that there’s an animatronic dog in the movie, and that the sweat on certain actors is “movie sweat,” taken from the flanks of Palomino horses.3 Kenneth Loring, not surprisingly, is a concoction of the Coens’ fancy, voiced by actor Jim Piddock reading a “commentary” written by the brothers themselves.4 Of all the Coen jokes, however, the most elaborate is probably their 1991 film Barton Fink, a movie that is part Hollywood satire, part surreal nightmare, complete with vicious mosquitoes, oozing walls, a serial killer, a hotel inferno, and a mind-crushing case of writer’s block. Describing the plot of the picture is pointless because there is no plot. It’s the closest that Hollywood has ever come to making a Dadaist movie, a story built around a protagonist who learns nothing and gains nothing, replete with red herring clues and meaningless symbolism, and ending, enigmatically, with a pelican plunging (dead?) into the Pacific Ocean.
The brothers are, effectively, a filmmaking Janus, more so even than most fraternal movie partnerships. For the first 20 years of their careers, Joel took credit as director, Ethan as producer, but in truth they did everything as a team. They also write and edit their films together, though the latter credit is given to Roderick Jaynes, a fictitious Englishman who is said to possess a florid face and a taste for Saville Row suits.5 Actors who work with them claim that even when the brothers are separated they give the same answers to questions.6 Indeed, so alike are they in their sensibilities and so quick are they to complete each other’s sentences that interviewers often treat them as a single person. Obviously, at least some of this is a put-on, another one of the brothers’ elaborate jokes. Joel is, by general consensus, the more gregarious of the two, and thusly is the brother who deals more frequently with actors. Even this, however, is only a relative distinction, for neither is particularly outgoing by Hollywood standards. (Ethan has been known to bring books to parties, so that he might read rather than make conversation.7) Of the two, Joel was the one who seemed destined to be a filmmaker from an early age. It was he who dragged Ethan into their youthful cinematic ventures, he who attended NYU film school, and he who made the first forays into the movie industry, beginning first as an assistant editor and then an editor on low-budget horror movies while Ethan was still working as a clerk at Macy’s. It is Ethan, however, who is known to be the more intellectual of the two siblings. In addition to his prolific work in the cinema, Ethan has published a book of short stories, a book of poetry, and written several plays. It has been suggested by some that he may be the real genius behind the duo’s distinctive dialogue, with its frequent literary allusions and fondness for arcane idiom, though, like much else about the brothers’ lives, including Joel’s first marriage, this is hard to confirm. Clearly, the pair revel in enigmas. One thing, however, is certain. Though the brothers themselves have participated in the fiction that they operate with one brain, their bond is sealed by their differences just as much as it is by their similarities. Only together can they form a single filmmaker, Joel the commanding leader, like Albert Finney in Miller’s Crossing, Ethan the wordsmith whispering in his ear.
Their Achilles’ heel has always been their misanthropy. From the very beginning, they peopled their films with dimwits, yokels, rubes, phonies, and spineless Jews, only to wreak cosmic havoc on their lives, like a pair of kids collecting ants so they could incinerate them with a magnifying glass. The smartest character in Blood Simple is the corpulent, sleazy detective, yet he is dumb enough to reach through an open window into an adjacent one and get his hand skewered to the sill by a knife. Intelligent characters fare little better in the Coen universe. Gabriel Byrne, in Miller’s Crossing, is sharp-tongued, well-read, and as cunning a political strategist as Lyndon Johnson. But his biggest mistake is his single act of kindness, and if the film offers a life lesson it is this: it’s better not to have a heart. The Coens reserve their harshest criticisms, however, for Jews. Barton Fink (John Turturro), the eponymous hero of their fourth film, is an amalgam of Clifford Odets and George S. Kaufman, taking the former’s left-wing politics and adorning it with the latter’s frizzy pompadour. But they turn the character into the worst kind of intellectual fraud, a self-important elitist who blathers about writing for the working man while actually knowing nothing of his plight. Thus, it seems only just when the filmmakers torment the hypocritical heel, putting him through a multitude of misfortunes, like God punishing Job. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), the protagonist of their 2009 film A Serious Man, is treated to similar distress, though what his crime is besides being timid and dull is less obvious. Probably the Coens’ most sniveling creation, though, is Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), the bookie in Miller’s Crossing, a character who exhibits all the worst traits anti-Semites have attributed to the Jews over the centuries, including avarice, cunning, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and sexual deviance. When he’s up, he’s snide and vicious; when he’s down, meek and groveling. The incredible thing is, like Fagin in Oliver Twist, the character is wonderfully vivid: smart, self-deprecating, and, at times, even likeable. He’s a villain like Shelly Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross, drawing out your sympathy one moment, then punishing you for it the next. Nevertheless, I’d feel a bit uncomfortable watching the film with Elie Wiesel sitting next to me in the audience.
This is what makes The Big Lebowski such a joy. Coen fans coming to the film for the first time will be shocked by how much tenderness the film lavishes on its characters. No longer are their eccentricities scorned but, for once, celebrated, with the same kind of tenderness that Fellini once bestowed on his oddballs and misfits. Even before Lebowski, there were inklings of change in Coenland. Fargo (1996), despite its frigid setting and macabre storyline, had one glimmer of warmth: Marge (Frances McDormand), the pregnant policewoman whose keen intelligence and indefatigable optimism saved the film from being irredeemably bleak. Much of Fargo takes place in the frozen wastes of the upper Midwest, where the land and sky meet in a single blinding mass of white: a cunning but vicious metaphor for the general temperament of the locals, who hide their icy souls behind masks of chipper blandness. Again, it’s hard not to feel that the Coens are sneering at their unfortunate rubes, though that’s precisely what makes the film so deliciously tart. In one scene, Marge has dinner with an acquaintance from high school who, after making an awkward pass at her, reveals that his wife recently died of leukemia. He then breaks down and begins sobbing about how lonely he is. It’s a touching moment, embarrassing yet poignant, affecting enough to move the most stalwart cynic, which is exactly what the Coens want: so they can pull the rug out from under us. The next day, another friend tells Marge that the man’s wife did not die at all. In fact, he’s never been married, is currently living with his parents, and has been harassing the woman he claimed was his wife. That this incident has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot hardly seems to bother the brothers at all, who appear intent on proving that the entire population of Minnesota and the Dakotas, excepting Marge, are morons, frauds, or both.
The Big Lebowski, by comparison, is positively promiscuous in its affection for its characters. The movie is a veritable cornucopia of personalities, spilling from the screen in Dickensian abundance, from Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the Big Lebowski’s uptight assistant, to Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), the pedophilic Cuban bowler, to Da Fino (Jon Polito), the meat-headed, Volvo-driving private eye. One of the advantages of working with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro, from a director’s standpoint, is the sheer force of their characterizations. It’s not just that they’re irrepressibly physical actors but that, from the slightest gesture, they can reveal an entire life: the way Brandt awkwardly flaps his arms at his sides when he’s embarrassed, simultaneously giggling with false mirth; and that straight-backed, hip-thrusting walk of Quintana’s, not to mention his habit of flicking his tongue against the surface of a bowling ball before sending it down the lane. Part of what makes these characters feel so real to us is that they each seem so thoroughly convinced of their own centrality, that the movie is really their story, not the Dude’s. And, indeed, you could build an entire film around the characters The Big Lebowski tosses aside, a cackling video artist, say, or a mute TV writer encased in an iron lung. The Dude’s landlord (Jack Kehler), a pudgy, would-be interpretive dancer, hardly gets three lines in the movie, yet you can practically see his entire life projected just by the way he carries himself. When we first encounter him on the Dude’s doorstep, he’s scrunched up and nervous, like a mole caught out in the sunlight. When we see him again on the stage, decked out in a flesh-colored leotard wreathed in olive leaves, he’s as loose-limbed and unselfconscious as Jerry Lewis, at home at last in his true habitat.
When it comes to sheer physical presence, though, it’s impossible to outdo John Goodman, a man whose girth was precisely calibrated for comedy, if not health or physical attractiveness. Imagining the movie without him is like imagining Henry lV without Falstaff, which is to say that the Dude needs his corpulent sidekick no less than Prince Hal needs his. For one thing, Goodman looks the part. The Coens loosely based the character of Walter on John Milius, the film director and notorious gun nut, with whom Goodman shares a striking resemblance, especially when fitted with tinted eyeglasses and a chin strap beard. Yet it’s his delicate blend of irascibility and lovability that really makes Goodman the only man for the role. There’s something irresistibly appealing about the actor, even at his most abrasive. As he demonstrated in Sea of Love (1989), he can light up a scene simply by flashing that big, puffy grin of his. This is crucial, for Walter is not an outwardly likeable character. He’s loud, querulous, paranoid, pedantic, self-righteous, and, until the end, completely unrepentant for being thus. Of course, the fat lout has long been a comic mainstay, from Fatty Arbuckle to Chris Farley, but usually the lesson they taught us, over the course of a road trip or a series of mishaps, was that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, that the gentlest souls reside in the most ponderous bodies. In Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), for example, John Candy was a walking calamity, but he charmed you from the moment he appeared onscreen and made Steve Martin seem prudish and uncaring by comparison. Goodman’s performance in The Big Lebowski, however, is considerably more risky. Rather than play down Walter’s faults, Goodman plays them up, turning up his abrasiveness to the max, coarsening the character where a less confident actor would soften him. He shouts, he blusters, he throws fits of childish hauteur; not once does he deign to seek our sympathy; and that is precisely what makes him so sympathetic: his pride, his dignity. He’s also an unapologetic member of the Hebraic religion — if not by birth then, at least, by conversion — and this makes him an original in the Coen oeuvre: a Jew who can kick your ass.
The Dude, though, is the piece de resistance of the whole movie — its Hamlet, its David Copperfield, its Dr. Strangelove — and only Jeff Bridges could have played him so well. In his youth, Bridges had the good looks to be a star and, thanks to his lineage (he is the son of actor Lloyd Bridges and actress Dorothy Bridges) an inside track on Hollywood success. But for years he roamed the outer edges of A-list fame, seemingly choosing roles to satisfy some inner yen rather than a desire to enhance his celebrity. He was none-too-likeable in The Last Picture Show (1971) and Bad Company (1972); barely noticeable in Heaven’s Gate (1980); and dwarfed by special effects in both King Kong (1976) and Tron (1982). Yet he was always good, sometimes astonishingly so. He could be manic and inspiring, as in Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), or grim and sardonic, as in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). His guileless charm in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) turned what might have been a routine heist picture into a touching story of male friendship, so much so that his death at the end was almost too sad for the movie, seeming to spring from a gloomier film. Before The Big Lebowski, though, the movie gods blessed him with a perfect role only once, in Starman (1984), where he took a well-worn premise — a stranger in a strange land — and used it to conduct a symphony on the theme of what it means to be alive. By compressing all earthly experience into three short days, he effectively gave us a time-lapse portrait of human growth, moving from gaucherie to worldliness over the course of a road trip, in the process humbling the humans around him, making their manners and morals seem like the barbaric rites of a primitive tribe.
But it took the Dude to cement him in the public’s mind. Some actors embody a part so completely that it becomes almost impossible to imagine anyone else taking it on. Orson Welles found such a part in Harry Lime; Jack Nicholson found one in Randle McMurphy; Marlon Brando found several, beginning with Stanley Kowalski, a part that, though not exclusively his, will forever be haunted by his ghost. Bridges and the Dude are similarly bound, which you’d imagine must be somewhat irritating for the actor, who now has to endure the blandishments of Lebowskites everywhere, begging him to recite lines from the movie.8 Bridges, however, appears not to mind. “I was born to play the Dude,” he has said. “I understand that man inside and out. I suppose there’s a side of me that, had I not been an actor, might have lived life like the Dude.”9 It didn’t hurt, either, that he was a bit of a reluctant star, recognizable certainly but hardly a mega celebrity. A slightly more famous actor, even a very talented one like Tom Hanks or Bill Murray, with obvious comedic chops, would have brought with him all the baggage of his previous parts. When you’re known the world over, it’s hard to be credible as a character whose only identification is a Ralph’s card.
The genius of Bridges’ performance is that in a movie buzzing with action (kidnapping, ransom, Busby Berkleyesque dance sequences, magic carpet rides), the actor creates a kind of poetry out of inaction. Perhaps never before, at least in the frenetic world of Hollywood, has sloth been so sweetly celebrated. The Dude ambles rather than walks, mumbles rather than talks, and slouches in any chair he can find, invariably tossing a leg over the arm rest. Like Goodman’s part, the role required an actor who could abandon all self-consciousness. You can tell by his manner of dress that the Dude does most of his shopping at Goodwill, and, considering his persistent need to repose, his clothes don’t always flatter his physique, exposing an expanse of stomach or a length of thigh that most people would be at pains to keep covered. Fans of the movie love to repeat the character’s befuddled pronouncements (“Well that’s just, like, your opinion, man”), and while it’s impossible to deny Bridge’s gift for incoherence — an art, like playing a drunk, of inartfulness — many of his best moments occur in silence. Unlike Goodman, who gets to shout, flail, and pontificate, Bridges is often forced to act only with his face: a condescending glance over the top of his sunglasses, a look of perplexity as he lies prone on his living room floor, a scowl after being showered by a torrent of human ashes.
Astonishingly, the Coens didn’t originally envision Bridges in the part. The actor they considered indispensable to the film was Goodman, whose commitment to the TV show Roseanne forced the filmmakers to shoot the movie when they did. The script was actually written before Fargo, which the brothers shot while they waited for Goodman to become available. The two films make nice companion pieces. They each mine the same narrative vein (kidnapping and ransom) but from opposite angles, the former cold and austere, the latter sunny and exuberant. The idea for the Lebowski screenplay began, as the movie itself does, with the theft of a rug. A friend of the brothers, Peter Exline, one day complained to them about how his rug had been stolen, lamenting that it had really “tied the room together.” Exline, a Vietnam vet, also liked to gripe about the war, telling them at various times “Well, we were winning when I left” and “Look, it’s a lot different fighting in the desert and fighting in canopy jungle.”10 Then he related an anecdote about another Vietnam vet, a man who may or may not have been named Walter, who’d had his car stolen by a teenage joy rider but tracked the young man down through a homework assignment that the thief left in the car. The kicker of the story: when Walter confronted the youth, he brandished the homework assignment as though it was a piece of police evidence, sealed in a plastic sandwich baggie.
Somehow, this last detail was the clincher for the brothers, who recognized the comic motherlode they’d struck in Exline. They then began compiling other incidents and characters from their own lives to add to the story they were beginning to envision: an amateur softball league that Exline was fanatically devoted to (“We changed it to bowling because it was so much more visually compelling.”), the film director John Milius, and a producer’s rep named Jeff Dowd, a shaggy-haired stoner who goes by the name “the Dude.”11 That the brothers should squeeze these elements into the frame of a Raymond Chandler story, making Dowd their Philip Marlowe is, on the face of it, something of a high-minded joke, like a fantasy dreamed up by a pair of stoned Lit majors. On the other hand, it may be the truest method of adapting Chandler to the screen, at once paying homage to his wit and love of Los Angeles, while gently burlesquing the circuitous tangle of his plots. During the filming of The Big Sleep (1946), Humphrey Bogart famously asked director Howard Hawks who killed the chauffeur, Owen Taylor. Hawks admitted he didn’t know, and neither did William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett, the screenwriters. So the film company wired Chandler. After checking the text of his book, the author wired the studio back: he didn’t have a clue either.12 By taking on Chandler, the brothers also completed the noir triptych that they’d begun back in the ’80s with Blood Simple. The title of that film was taken from a line in Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, though the story, which dabbled in infidelity, money, and murder, was clearly influenced more by James M. Cain. The plot of Miller’s Crossing was pure Hammett, though, borrowing liberally from his 1931 novel The Glass Key. Among the major Black Maskwriters of the ’30s, this only left them Chandler, the most talented, as well as the most challenging, of the big three.
Shooting began in January 1997 on a budget of $15 million, which was twice what the brothers had been given for Fargo but still minuscule compared to most Hollywood comedies.1314 (Jim Carrey, by comparison, got $20 million just for appearing in The Cable Guy the year before.15) Sensitive to the fact that they were wading into a genre teaming with clichés, the brothers were insistent that their crew not make the stoner motif too overt: no lava lamps, no Day-Glo posters, no Grateful Dead on the soundtrack. Says Ethan, “We didn’t want it to look like a Cheech and Chong movie.”16 They were equally concerned that they not overdo any of the other iconography in the movie. Since we are told that Maude Lebowski’s paintings are very “vaginal,” the obvious thing to do would have been to decorate her loft in highly suggestive artwork: gaping mouths, blooming flowers, etc. Again, however, the brothers avoided such a well-trod course. Though she may at first seem au courant, Maude, like the Dude and Walter, is really a throwback to another era, a figure picked up from the ’60s and dropped into the early ’90s. Based on her method of composition (i.e., painting while flying through the air like a trapeze artist), she would appear to be an exponent of the Fluxus movement, a style of art that ran out of gas around the time Led Zeppelin broke up. Except for a couple of naked mannequins, there’s nothing particularly Sapphic about her apartment at all. As Rick Heinrichs, the film’s production designer, observes, “It’s very important to Joel and Ethan that they not hit something right on the head. You don’t go for the obvious.”17
As with all their movies, the brothers scrupulously storyboarded every scene in the movie, a practice they’d begun on Blood Simple, where the tiny budget compelled them to plan everything in advance. “The only way to make a decent movie for no money is to be very, very prepared,” Joel explains. “We started doing it because, temperamentally, we were insecure. We’re not necessarily good extemporizers and we particularly prefer not to extemporize camera coverage on the set on the day we’re going to shoot.”18 Some things, however, were extemporized as the film got under way. The Dude’s jelly sandals, for instance, were Bridges’ idea — and a superb one at that, epitomizing his utter lack of dress sense — but they’d become so decidedly unfashionable by 1997 that the costume designer, Mary Zophres, was forced to fly to Trinidad to pick up a pair. Quintana’s long purple pinky fingernail was, similarly, Turturro’s brainchild, rigged together quickly by the costume department and painted with polish to match his jumpsuit. The shooting of the picture proceeded smoothly, minus the usual run-of-the-mill difficulties encountered on any production. During the filming of the Corvette-smashing scene, the police were called to the set when a neighbor, hearing the noise of Goodman and his crowbar, thought a car really was being vandalized. For the Busby Berkeley-inspired dream sequence, filmed in an airplane hangar in Santa Monica, the brothers sought out the tallest dancers they could find, so as to slide Bridges between their legs. In the end, though, Bridges’ shoulders proved too broad for the effect, and they were forced to shoot the two elements separately against a green screen, melding them together in post. The biggest difficulty of the shoot, however, turned out to be a fairly mundane problem: how to get Goodman to throw a satchel out the window of a moving car. The Coens wanted the satchel to fly out in a high, graceful arc over the car, but this feat turned out to be deceptively difficult, both for Goodman and a hale stuntman, who could each only manage a pitiful lob that dropped artlessly to the ground. For hours, the production was held up while the crew tried every method they could think of to make the effect work, until Bridges, hearing of the dilemma in his trailer, came up with the solution in an instant: why not film the shot in reverse? The brothers decided to give it a try. The stuntman drove the car backwards across the bridge, his arm raised to the sky, and at the appropriate moment the satchel was hurled back towards his hand. It worked.
The reception of the film, both by audiences and critics, was not nearly so smooth. It opened sluggishly, pulling in $5.53 million in its opening weekend, and ultimately grabbing only $10 million from American theaters, a third less than its production budget and not even half of what Fargo had brought in on an even smaller investment. The reviews were, in the kindly language of the industry, mixed. While critics generally liked the performances and found the film amusing, many complained about the looseness of the plot, and few seemed to consider the picture anything more than featherbrained entertainment. Todd McCarthy in Variety thought that The Big Lebowski “adds up to considerably less than the sum of its often scintillating parts, simply because the film does not seem to be about anything other than its own cleverness,”19 while Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “This film feels completely haphazard, thrown together without much concern for organizing intelligence … the Coens don’t seem to be very interested in it.”20 Even Janet Maslin, who commended the film more than most, was hardly effusive in her praise, ultimately summing it up by borrowing a line from Sam Elliott’s closing monologue: “It was a purty good story, don’t you think? Made me laugh to beat the band. Parts, anyway.”21
There may not be second acts to American lives, if F. Scott Fitzgerald is to be believed, but there certainly are for American films. In The Big Lebowski‘s case, it was home video that opened the curtains for the second time. Roger Ebert once said that most films deserve to be seen only once.22 This may be true on the whole, for most films, like most artistic endeavors in any form, are not very good. The best films, though, excepting those that are excruciatingly bleak, beg to be seen again and again. Some can only be properly appreciated after the second or third viewing. This is the gift of home video, a gift older critics rarely mention when they talk about the decline of our theatergoing tradition. While something was certainly lost when home video was born, something was gained, as well. Film appreciation was, for the first time, democratized, allowing those not lucky enough to live in a big city to become cineastes too; films that died in theaters were given new life; and audiences discovered nuances in films that they would have missed had they only seen them once.
The most common complaint of critics reviewing The Big Lebowski in 1998 is that its plot is too labyrinthine to follow. In fact, watch the film a couple of times and you’ll see that it’s not. The narrative, in fact, is remarkably straightforward. A soiled carpet leads to a millionaire and his kidnapped wife. A ransom is produced and lost. A pornographer and a band of German nihilists each, in turn, come calling, looking for the missing loot. The millionaire’s daughter drops a vital clue, revealing her father’s guilt. The kidnapped wife returns unharmed, and the mystery is solved. Simple. The neatness of it would have made Raymond Chandler green with envy. What makes The Big Lebowski seem so circuitous is that, in moving from A to B to C, the plot keeps dawdling at points of interest along the way, stopping to admire the scenery before picking up and moving on. That’s essentially what Quintana and Brandt and Da Fino are: local color. It’s a movie about the pleasure of the journey, not the arrival at the destination.
In the years since The Big Lebowski‘s release, a cult has grown up around it. It has spawned T-shirts, Halloween costumes, drinking games, bumper stickers, and a whole franchise of loosely affiliated “Lebowski Fests,” weekend festivals that include viewings of the film, bowling parties, and massive consumption of White Russian cocktails. I attended a midnight screening a couple years back that was so jam-packed with Lebowskites, decked out in hoodies, striped shorts, and Ray-Ban sunglasses, that they were literally clogging the aisles. The shelf of literature on the film is equally crowded, and it’s ever-expanding, proving that where undergrads go their professors will soon follow. Essays on the movie include such titles as “The Big Lebowski and Paul de Man: Historicizing Irony and Ironizing Historicism,” “Metronymic Hats and Metaphoric Tumbleweeds: Noir Literary Aesthetics in Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski,” and “No Literal Connection: Mass Commodification, U.S. Militarism, and the Oil Industry in The Big Lebowski.” Not all writing on the film is so unsmiling. For a breezy, distinctly Dudelike take on the movie, fans should seek out I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski or Jeff Bridges’ own book on the movie, The Dude and the Zen Master, which uses quotes and characters from the movie as a springboard for discussions of life, philosophy, and acting technique.
What is it that makes the film so popular? The protagonist’s frequent ingestion of weed and White Russians is no doubt part of the appeal, particularly for college students. One imagines, too, that the young are attracted to the Dude because he rejects society’s expectations of a normative adult, a quality that makes him both a bit of an overgrown college student himself (messy, jobless, and frequently high) and also a bit of an antihero. In this sense he is a legitimate heir to Humphrey Bogart, who was, after all, Hollywood’s original antihero. Part of the film’s appeal, however, must also lie in its inherent sweetness. The Los Angeles of The Big Lebowski is no more an authentic place than is the Paris of Rene Clair’s imagination. The Coen brothers have rarely shown much of an interest in strict realism as such. Yet, like Clair’s Paris, there’s something undeniably appealing about the forgery, something strangely enchanting that makes the fiction more desirable than the reality. Observe how tenderly, for instance, the details of the bowling alley are rendered: the porcine bellies, the two-toned shoes, the half-smoked cigarettes, the balletic arc of a pin as it completes a seven-ten split. Bowling never looked more romantic. Like Dziga Vertov, the great Soviet director, the Coens find beauty in the simple motion of objects, letting their camera wander behind the walls to observe the pins lifting into place or sending it zipping behind the bowling balls as they glide down the lanes. The soundtrack, likewise, despite being comprised almost entirely of ’70a rock, is surprisingly laid-back, gentle even, as though it were tuned to the wavelength of the Dude’s own brain. When the Coens choose to play a Bob Dylan song, they skip over his more famous politicized folk and pick “The Man in Me,” a sweet romantic ballad that, appropriately, seems almost to have been composed in a dream.
Most important, though, The Big Lebowski is, at its core, a love story — an unusual love story, yes, but a love story nonetheless — between the Dude and Walter. You can’t watch the two of them bickering without thinking of other screen couples crossing swords (Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, maybe, or Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea) and, like those couples, what their words of anger really tell us is how much they actually care for each other. There is, for instance, something particularly touching and true about the way Walter, in mid-argument with the Dude, silently mouths his frustration to Donny, like a father beseeching his son for support during a quarrel with his wife. After Donny funeral at the end, the pair collapse in a reluctant hug, admitting that, despite their many differences, all they have in the world is each other. It doesn’t seem like much, but for them that’s enough. It’s an affecting moment and an ideal one to end the film on, simultaneously closing the cover on the drama and dispelling what is, perhaps, the Coens’ longest-running hoax. The brothers, we discover, for all their apparent cynicism and all their seeming misanthropy, actually have a heart.
- Chandler, p. 170. [↩]
- Comentale and Jaffe, p. 91. [↩]
- Blood Simple. [↩]
- Piddock. [↩]
- Bennun, p. 117. [↩]
- Stuhlbarg. [↩]
- Levine, p. 77. [↩]
- Sagal. [↩]
- Mottram, p. 134. [↩]
- Robertson, p. 39. [↩]
- Levine, p. 141. [↩]
- McCarthy, p. 382. [↩]
- Motram, p. 134. [↩]
- Levine, p. 145. [↩]
- Warner. [↩]
- Robertson, p. 95. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 98. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 55. [↩]
- Bailey. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Maslin. [↩]
- Gross. [↩]