The Spoiler Alert: The Big Lebowski
“Where’s the money, Lebowski??”
This simple question marks the first line of The Big Lebowski, and also the summation of its central conflict.
18 years after its release, it’s difficult to remember a world where this film wasn’t embedded in our pop culture lexicon. Its notoriety is due in no small part to uniqueness, despite the fact that the unfolding events are simplistic on the surface.
The plot: Those first four words tell you everything you need to know about the next two hours, and yet they really tell you nothing at all about what makes this movie such a standout.
All the same, what needs to be said?
It’s near the time of the Gulf War so must be 1991 (why is this special, and isn’t this odd for a movie released in 1998? We may never truly know). Our main character’s name is Jeff Lebowski (played by Jeff Bridges) but he prefers to be called The Dude (or His Dudeness, or Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing). He is lazy — quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County and therefore high in the running for laziest worldwide. He’s unemployed, favorite drink: White Russian, favorite band: CCR. He likes to get stoned and he loves bowling with a singular passion.
We first find The Dude opening and sniffing a carton of half & half at the supermarket. He’s dressed in a type of outfit he’ll spend most of the film in — undershirt and shorts that could be pajamas, bathrobe, and sunglasses. Returning to his bungalow apartment, two hired goons accost him. Forcefully dunking his face in the toilet, they are after an answer to the question we opened with.
The goons are looking for a millionaire by the same name with a wife named Bunny — enter the big Lebowski and thus the mixup. But before this can be cleared up, Wu (can you guess which goon is Asian) has peed on The Dude’s rug.
Our story might have ended here, but that rug really tied the room together, and thus begins The Dude’s quest to have this wrong righted. What follows is a tale involving kidnapping and ransom, charity embezzlement, a German 70s techno band of nihilists, a runaway farm girl, known pornographers, a convicted sex offender with a record, acid flashbacks, a missing toe and lots of bowling. Oh, and, a briefcase full of 1 million dollars.
All the dude ever wanted was his rug back. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t get it… not really. But hey, life is ups and downs, strikes and gutters.
The characters: If ever there was a film that revolved around the creation of incredible characters and a stellar cast to pull them off, this is the one you are looking for. In addition to Bridges’ enduring performance as The Dude, you’ll find John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Peter Stormare and John Turturro in what are arguably some of their most memorable roles... Ever. Not to mention an unending cadre of familiar faces in small performances and some of the best bit parts I’ve ever seen in a film. Any attempt to describe them will fall short: No one can truly tell you what The Matrix is… you just have to see it for yourself.
OK... but what makes this movie so special?
If I were to be tasked with defining the term “cult classic”, The Big Lebowski is the immediate example that comes to mind. Considered a box office disappointment at the time of its release in 1998 (the Coen bros had won an oscar for best screenplay with Fargo two years prior and expectations were high), the film would go on to achieve stunning success in home video entertainment, becoming an emblem of what would later be dubbed “replay culture” in the parlance of our times.
I can personally attest to the veracity of this. In 1998 I was 12 years old and my first viewing was on a VHS rented from BlockBuster for a friend’s birthday party. Last year when I started dating my girlfriend, she was watching the movie at least once a day on her laptop and often falling asleep to it playing.
Like most innocent bystanders to the Lebowski phenomenon, it has managed to penetrate into my life even as I have never sought it out, and has a legacy so rich, it’s rare to find someone who’s never heard of it at the least.
An annual festival, Lebowski Fest, is now going 14 years strong. A religion, Dudeism and the accompanying Church of the Latter-Day Dude was founded in 2005.
Beyond the memes and the quotes, however, is a fascinating work that itself probes at the meanings of entertainment, repetition, and the core of familiarity that drives pop culture as a whole. See this film for the novelty of experience, or see it for the work of philosophical art that it truly is — but most importantly, keep watching it… you’ll be surprised at what you find.
…The Dude abides.