I’ve never seen The Big Lebowsi before. I’ve never really had any interest in watching it. I always understood it to be somewhat of a stoner movie, and Pineapple Express made me never want to watch another stoner movie again. In preparation for its 20th anniversary, however, I sat down and watched it, prepared to be underwhelmed. Both surprisingly and unsurprisingly, I really liked it.
If you’ve never seen the film, it’s about a washed-up, unemployed flower child who goes by the moniker “The Dude” whose life solely revolves around his bowling team. Jeff Bridges is unremarkable in the role, which is kind of the point. The Dude is supposed to be unremarkable, a forgettable archetype of a time passed. Walter, played by John Goodman, is an over-the-top, racist, sociopathic Vietnam veteran who, like The Dude, just wants to bowl. His penchant for extreme behavior is the primary cause of The Dude’s problems, as he just wants to chill, smoke weed, and bowl.
The most tragic character in the film is Donny (Steve Buscemi), who just wants to be a part of his bowling team’s conversations. Walter is continuously yelling “Shut the fuck up, Donny!”, yet Donny does not shut up. Somehow, he is okay with the verbal abuse and being a flat character with no backstory whatsoever. The only good thing that happens is he gets his In-N-Out burger, right after having The Dude’s car smashed with a crowbar while Donny is sitting in it. In the end, Donny has a heart attack during a failed robbery attempt and dies. In typical fashion, Walter puts Donny’s ashes in a Folgers can, fabricates Donny’s last wishes (nobody cares about Donny), and spreads his ashes to the wind, caking The Dude in his friend’s remains.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, in typical fashion, kills his role as Brandt, assistant to Jeffrey Lebowski. Lebowski’s “kidnapped” trophy wife, Bunny, is played by a particularly self-absorbed Tara Reid, while Julianne Moore comes to life as Maude Lebowski, Jeffrey Lebowski’s feminist, artist daughter. The cast is eccentric, especially John Turturro’s flamboyantly sexual Jesus Quintana.
The cinematography of the film is spectacular, particularly The Dude’s drugged-out dream sequence. Synchronized cabaret dancers adorned with bowling-pin headdresses mark a stark contrast against an all-black background, the most vibrant images of the film, as the majority of The Big Lebowski takes place in dirty Los Angeles. This scene is highlighted by the striking visual of The Dude levitating down a bowling lane in a contented stupor, as if he has never wanted anything more than to be the game of bowling.
The film has a somewhat subdued anti-military theme, with a particular focus on the Vietnam War. If The Dude is able to live his life of peacefulness without the interruption of the neoconservative Walter, none of his property would be destroyed, nobody’s cars would be smashed in, and Donny would not have had a heart attack. This is the dilemma of the American militaristic society: people want peace, the government wants to profit through escalation, and conscientious objectors get killed. This film is a stunning piece of political commentary if you can dig under the surface.
Ultimately, The Big Lebowski is a success. It was a commercial and critical mediocrity at release, but has developed into a cult film in the two decades since it graced theaters. Its political underhandedness is overshadowed by its stoner-film aspirations, but both work in tandem to create a singular stunning work of film. Do not let its outward appearance set you aback; The Big Lebowski will give back as much as you’re willing to put into it.
Director: Joel Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, John Turturro
Release date: March 6, 1998
Running Time: 117 minutes
Categories: Movie Anniversaries