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Holy Hell! The Big Lebowski Turns 20

Holy Hell! The Big Lebowski Turns 20

Viewed 20 years later, The Big Lebowski’s wry satirization of capitalism becomes more pronounced.

Two years after Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson declared that “there’s more to life than a little money, you know,” Joel and Ethan Coen veered away from the bleak subject matter and stark tundra of Fargo and ventured back toward their zanier sensibilities in a romp set in sunny Los Angeles. Despite Joel Coen later admitting that the actual plot of The Big Lebowski doesn’t matter much (the film instead emphasizes idiosyncratic character vignettes), its madcap chain of events is set into motion over the reckless pursuit of money, a common theme in the Coen universe.

Left to his own devices, the Dude (Jeff Bridges) is a man of simple pleasures: bowling, some weed (to keep the mind limber), a White Russian or two and maybe a little Creedence is enough to keep him happy—that and the occasional acid flashback. When the Dude is assaulted in his own home by a porn kingpin’s hired goons due a case of mistaken identity, he suffers the indignity of a violent home invasion and rug urination with relatively good humor. Only when his irascible bowling partner, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), convinces the Dude to pursue compensation for the soiled rug from the actual target of the shakedown—the wealthy Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), with whom the Dude shares a name—do things begin to teeter out of control in the Dude’s otherwise blissfully hazy, Zen-like existence.

Viewed 20 years later, The Big Lebowski’s wry satirization of capitalism becomes more pronounced. Through a 21st century lens shaded by affordable housing and income inequality crises, it’s even more odious to consider the greed and lechery of a rich man, whose wealth was bestowed upon him, causing a peaceful poor man to literally get thrown into a toilet. Walter’s got a point that, ethically, Mr. Lebowski should probably pony up a little cash for the rug, even if there’s no legal obligation. Considering the seething vitriol of our current political discourse, the outraged Big Lebowski’s unsurprising refusal to pay for the rug, with the assertion that “the bums always lose,” almost feels respectfully restrained in comparison.

It’s the rare chip on the Dude’s shoulder that ultimately throws his peaceful existence out of whack. His materialistic decision, at Walter’s goading, to seek compensation for a rug that “really tied the room together” sparks a sequence of events in which nearly every interaction seems to revolve around deception and money. When the Dude happens across Mr. Lebowski’s porn-star trophy-wife Bunny (Tara Reid), who “owes money all over town,” she offers to “suck (his) cock for a thousand dollars.” And when the rich man’s estranged daughter, Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), sends her own goons to repossess the replacement rug that the Dude cunningly pilfers, she makes sure to cover his medical bill for “that crack on the jaw”—doing so as a ruse to medically ensure he’s clean of STDs so she can trick him into impregnating her.

And then, of course, there’s the ransom; what turns out to be a weighted briefcase acts as a MacGuffin throughout the film. After the Dude is summoned back to Mr. Lebowski’s mansion with a plea that he act as a courier of the ransom money for the apparently kidnapped Bunny, Walter jumps at the chance to wedge himself into the caper. Weighting a satchel with his dirty laundry (the whites), he schemes to have the Dude keep the entire $1 million ransom rather than an agreed-upon cut. That it’s later revealed the Big Lebowski himself is up to weighted-briefcase shenanigans serves to reiterate the Coens’ thematic fixation on people doing crazy things for, what in the grand scheme of things, is “just a little bit of money.”

A box office flop at the time of its release, The Big Lebowski has grown into a beloved cult classic, spawning Lebowski Fests in more than a dozen major cities, attended by fans who exude a far more “enduring fascination” with the movie that the Coens claim to currently possess. The film endures on the strength of its characters. Though John Turturro’s uproarious turn as a lascivious bowling dynamo Jesus Quintana reportedly embarrassed him at first, the actor-director has now resurrected the character in a Coen-blessed spinoff, Going Places, due out later this year. As Maude Lebowski, Moore brings delightful pretentiousness to a role that revels in stereotypes of wealthy liberals as artsy-fartsy wackos. Ben Gazzara oozes sophisticated sleaze as pornographer Jackie Treehorn, Philip Seymour Hoffman is awkwardly delightful as Mr. Lebowski’s sycophantic assistant Brandt, and Jack Kehler adds oddball charm as the Dude’s interpretive-dance-obsessed landlord. Sam Elliott’s baritone narration and memorable onscreen cameo at the film’s coda imbue it with an almost whimsical neo-Western atmosphere.

Most fascinating, however, is Walter, an amiable yet hot-tempered man who will fly into a rage when his sense of order is infringed upon. He pulls a gun during a bowling league game when he insists an opponent’s toe slid over the line; he destroys a sports car with a crowbar to prove a misplaced point; and he almost always finds a way to tie a perceived slight back into the horrors he experienced during combat in Vietnam. And yet, he takes care of his ex-wife’s fancy show dog (with papers!) when she’s out of town, and he insists upon adhering to the strictures of his newfound Judaism even though he only converted to the religion as part of that failed marriage. His interaction with the group’s third bowler (Steve Buscemi) consists primarily of saying, “Shut the fuck up, Donny,” but that phrase almost becomes a term of endearment, revealing hints of a tenderness that aren’t outwardly displayed until Donny dies of a panic-induced heart attack during the ear-chomping, sword-wielding final showdown with the whiny nihilist “kidnappers.”

It’s the kinship between the Dude and Walter that ultimately gives this odd, iconic film its heart, rendered most poignantly in their exchange after Walter accidentally dusts the Dude with a Folgers can-worth of Donny’s ashes on a windy Pacific coast cliff. The usually cocksure Walter sags his shoulders as though finally admitting defeat, and these two burly men embrace for likely the first time ever. They agree to cope with their grief by going bowling, retreating to the common ground of their friendship, where they can both endure life’s strikes and gutters as long as everybody “gives a shit about the rules.”

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