Initially, The Big Lebowski wasn’t a smash hit. Rather, it was a film many viewed as wacky and too bizarre for its own good. In 1998 (the year of its release) audiences were flocking to see big screen blockbusters like Armageddon and Saving Private Ryan, not a film about a lackadaisical man who gets embroiled in a twisting tale of lies and deception.
But gradually audiences and critics alike have come to love the random and comical nature of The Big Lebowski. Liking the film is no longer unusual; time has transformed it into a cult classic and arguably one of the Coen brothers’ most popular films. The film tracks Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, an aimless hippy who spends his time smoking weed and bowling. However, when two hired gunmen assault him and pee on his carpet, “The Dude” takes offence and seeks out the titular “Big Lebowski”, the man the two goons were in fact searching for. From then the story traces kidnapped wives, ransom money, a sexually flamboyant artist and of course, German nihilists. Add to this “The Dude”’s two friends Donny and Walter, a hilariously embittered Vietnam veteran, and you have a very eclectic mix of themes and characters.
In the hands of many directors this format would have fallen apart. But the Coen brothers are not ordinary filmmakers. They thrive on the strange and the weird, perpetually creating scenes and scenarios that are unique and never fail to delight. Take for example the taxi driver who loves The Eagles so much he manhandles “The Dude” for not sharing the same view. Or even German nihilists dressed in tight black latex parading around with a ferret on a leash. These hilarious snippets are so specific that they make the characters just that little bit more believable.
However, the masterstroke of the entire film lies within its setup. The story centres around thematic elements of the noir genre; kidnapping and the subsequent delivering of ransom money. This is no accident as the Coen’s have an outspoken love for noir, sighting Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep as one of the key influences to their cinematic form. The plot of The Big Lebowski borrows heavily from the book, but not so much as to be uncommendably derivative. While Chandler’s books traced Philip Marlowe, a whip smart detective with charisma aplenty, the Coens make “The Dude” a pothead perpetually drinking White Russians.
By inverting the typical noir set up, the film becomes utterly hilarious, but it also maintains the engaging plot framework of old noir movies. Crackling dialogue and intertwining plot threads make every scene an absolute treat. A scene where Walter, played brilliantly by John Goodman, berates a young kid, asking him: “Do you know about Vietnam Larry” is a brilliant marker of this. Goodman is having the time of his life in arguably his best role and is only outshined by Jeff Bridges’ portrayal of “The Dude” which is nothing short of iconic.
To achieve the look of being high, Bridges would rub his eyes before each take, making them red. This attention to detail is commendable and emphasises how the acting perfectly complements the outstanding script. Each character is brilliantly realised, and this is the key to why the film is now a cult classic. Another iconic character is Jesus, the bowling nemesis whose introduction sees him licking a bowling ball to the tune of Hotel California by the Gipsy Kings.
But of course, “The Dude” is the most crucial character. Audiences today love “The Dude” because he is fundamentally ordinary. He is lazy, and when attacked he doesn’t turn into an action hero or a smart private eye. Instead, he complains about his stolen rug which really “tied the room together” and tries to retrieve it. “The Dude” gets ruffled by a police officer, drowned in a toilet and attacked by a ferret. He’s an everyday man in an extraordinary situation.
In celebration of its twentieth anniversary, The Big Lebowski is now being shown in cinemas once again. It is no doubt worth a visit regardless of whether you’ve seen the film before. The endlessly quotable dialogue and amusing characters are unmissable, so channel your inner Lebowski and go see an undisputed Coen’s masterpiece. The Dude abides.
The Big Lebowski is out now in cinemas.