"Lebowski" At 20: That's Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man

Aug 9, 2018

A much-loved cult classic is back on the big screen this week, 20 years after its release was more or less met with indifference. WAMC’s Ian Pickus has this appreciation.

Considering the sheer ubiquity of “The Big Lebowski” today, hearing Sam Elliott’s sonorous pronouncement in surround sound carries with it some irony:

Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place.”

Maybe Jeff Bridges wasn’t the man for his time and place in 1998, but his indelible performance as The Dude in the Coen Brothers’ feature has lived on — inspiring conventions, an online church and an entire library of gifs. It’s the quintessential beach bum turn, an antidote to our fast-paced era of news and social media updates.

So what makes the film special? That was the question I thought about at a Fathom Events screening this week.

Like many people my age, I own the movie on DVD and find myself quoting it constantly. But watching in the theater, the cultural commentary embedded within the movie’s utter weirdness struck me anew.

The more you watch, it seems, the byzantine kidnapping plot and the trippy fantasy scenes in this stoner noir matter less than the cultural divide baked into the scenes. Shot during the Clinton impeachment years, the movie takes place on the eve of the first Gulf War, with the country’s Baby Boomer psychodramas looming large. John Goodman’s Vietnam veteran Walter is clearly damaged, although this is played mostly for laughs, and Jeffrey Lebowski’s one-time campus activist, and his pacifist and arty friends, are gliding into middle age on the fringes, resisting the Republican strictures of gainful employment and a sensible haircut. There are discussions about prior restraint on the First Amendment, and indifferent police, as the hippies and the squares continue their age-old conflict.

Like many of the Coens' movies, this dark comedy is also about big systems and the people that serve them. Obsessed with the rules, Walter won’t bowl on Shabbat — one of the few things in his life he can control. The characters disdain the harsh limits of nihilism but find themselves confronting very real violence.  And the wealthy here, especially the Big Lebowski of the movie’s title, are devious and grandiose in their efforts to remain on top — or least appear on top. That artifice is perhaps more trenchant today than ever.

You are struck by the liveliness of the dialogue and the fullness of the universe — the way Donnie, Walter and The Dude fully inhabit a life of bowling, In and Out burger and apparently not much else. In the end, the resolution to the kidnapping mystery is less satisfying than the journey we’ve been on.

To me, that’s why the film endures. The vibrant, lived-in world imagined by the Coens and brought to life by a stellar ensemble — especially the cameo by John Turturro, who just about steals the movie in 2 minutes of screen time — lacks pretension. Just like the real world, it’s full of oddballs, schemers and friends on the margins.

And despite constant questions about a sequel, the Coens have resisted the obvious financial windfall of serializing The Dude. In more mainstream Hollywood’s hands, we would probably be on the “straight to home video” phase of this universe.  But for diehards, “The Big Lebowski” is already perfect. Two decades after it bombed, another of The Dude’s lines seems prophetic:

“I’ll be there, man,” he tells his landlord, who is rehearsing a dance cycle.

He always will be.