30 Years of Coens: The Big Lebowski

Raymond Chandler in a bowling alley

Gramercy Pictures

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Coen brothers' debut, Blood Simple, I’m re-watching their 16 feature films and attempting to jot down observations on one per day, in order of their release. For a fuller explanation of what I’m doing and why, see my first entry, on Blood Simple. (Here, too, are my entries on Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Fargo. The landing page for the whole series is here.)

Notes on The Big Lebowski (1998)

• When the Coens offered their early homages to James M. Cain (Blood Simple) and Dashiell Hammett (Miller’s Crossing) they played them straight—at least by Coen standards. But when it came to the third cardinal of hardboiled fiction, Raymond Chandler, they decided to go another way. The Big Lebowski, very vaguely inspired by the Big Sleep, was the Coens’ loosest, loopiest film to date, a stoner crime comedy about bowling, Vietnam, and the critical importance of having that one interior-design element that ties the whole room together.

• Ironically, following in the wake of the utterly fabricated “true story” of Fargo, the Coens offered a wild fantasia of a movie that actually had its basis in real people. Their friend Pete Exline, a film producer (and Vietnam veteran), got them started with the ironic line about his scruffy rug “tying the room together” and a story about his having caught a teenage carjacker who’d made the mistake of leaving his homework in the vehicle. The characters of Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) and Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) were subsequently filled out with elements of two other Hollywood figures the Coens had gotten to know: Jeff Dowd, a scruffy producer and activist who was a former real-life member of the Seattle Seven; and John Milius, the storied screenwriter who is also a noted gun nut and military enthusiast.

• Raymond Chandler once explained the difference between the classic murder mystery and the hardboiled genre he’d helped invent: In the former, the plot—the careful alignment of details that enabled the mystery to be solved—was paramount, while in the latter, “the scene outranked the plot, in the sense that a good plot was one that made good scenes.” I don’t know whether the Coens ever read this analysis, but they surely embraced its spirit in The Big Lebowski. As Joel explained, echoing Chandler, “The plot is kind of secondary to other things.” The Dude, having had his precious rug peed on by thugs who mistook him for a different, wealthy—i.e., “big”—Lebowski (David Huddleston), decides to visit the latter for compensation, and soon finds himself in the midst of a convoluted kidnapping plot that may or may not be genuine. Indeed, by the end of the film, it’s revealed that almost nothing that’s taken place has been genuine: The kidnapping was phony, the ransom bag that the Dude and Walter dropped was phony, and even the real ransom bag that they’d planned (but failed) to keep was phony.

• Nor is it only the plot that’s loose. In contrast to the Coens’ previous films, the movie is a clamor of looks and moods, from the dingy muddle of the Dude’s bungalow to the glimmering neon of the bowling alley to the Busby-Berkeley-meets-Salvador-Dali absurdity of the dream sequences. As cinematographer Roger Deakins said of the movie, “I don’t think it has one style.” Even the era is a little fuzzy around the edges. Though the movie is set in 1991, both the Dude and Walter are obsessed with their experiences in the late ‘60s and early 70s (political activism and Vietnam, respectively). Meanwhile, the bowling alley—and bowling generally—consciously conjures the 1950s. The Big Lebowski is also the first Coens movie in which the soundtrack figures more prominently than the score, and that soundtrack (the Coens’ first collaboration with T Bone Burnett) is an eclectic mix that spans decades, though again with an emphasis on the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

• The cast, too, feels looser, as if the directors, at least to some degree, released the tight grip for which they are famous. Though John Turturro’s role as a bowling adversary is small, he was allowed to supply his own embellishments (the dance, the ball polishing). And Bridges and Goodman seem let off the leash altogether, the former delivering one of the most iconic stoner performances in history, and the latter … What should we say of Goodman? Written specifically for him, the role of Walter Sobchak is almost certainly the highlight of his career, an unforgettable opportunity to express both his outsized persona and his actorly control. As different as the characters are, when watching Walter’s ongoing battle between fury and self-restraint I was reminded of the brilliantly swerving moods of Turturro’s Bernie Bernbaum in Miller’s Crossing.

• Once again, Coen-world in-jokes abound. Jon Polito appears briefly as a P.I. trailing the protagonist in a VW Bug (Blood Simple), and commends the latter for “playing one side against the other, in bed with everyone” (Miller’s Crossing). Walter’s constant demand to their other bowling partner (Steve Buscemi) that he “Shut the fuck up, Donnie,” is only secondarily intended for its perceived recipient; primarily, it’s a reference back to Buscemi’s logorrheic character in Fargo. The ransom note sent to the big Lebowski, demanding $1 million (Fargo) for the return of his trophy wife, Bunny (Tara Reid), is on stationary from the Hotel Earl (Barton Fink). Moreover, Bunny is really a girl named Fawn Knutson from Moorhead, Minnesota—a sister city lying directly across the Red River from Fargo, North Dakota. If that weren’t enough, Peter Stormare, playing one of the nihilists, finally gets the pancakes he’d been pining for.

• But the movie's most convoluted inside joke doesn’t relate to Coen brothers oeuvre at all. When the Dude first meets Bunny, she asks him to blow on her nail-polished toes, a near-certain reference to the legendary “you know how to whistle, don’t you” double-entendre that a 19-year-old Lauren Bacall had delivered to Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not. The next film in which the two (now a couple) starred together was Howard Hawks’s adaptation of, yes, The Big Sleep. I refuse to believe that this is a coincidence. (It’s true that Bacall’s character in that film tracks more closely with Maude, the Julianne Moore character in The Big Lebowski, than with Bunny, but still … ) It’s worth noting here that Hawks’s straightforward Chandler adaptation served far less as a model for Lebowski than did Robert Altman’s offbeat 1973 variation on The Long Goodbye. The latter, in which Elliott Gould played a semi-comical, half-hearted Philip Marlowe, lies almost exactly at the midpoint between Chandler and the Coens’ satirical reinvention. (It also offered the second, uncredited, onscreen appearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who played a nameless hood.)

• One “joke” that was not deliberate is the date of the 69-cent check that the Dude writes out to pay for half and half (a crucial ingredient of his signature White Russians) at the beginning of the movie: September 11, 1991, exactly 10 years before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Rendering the coincidence creepier still is the movie’s Gulf War backdrop and the fact that immediately after writing the check, the Dude glances up at a television in the grocery store on which George H. W. Bush is promising that Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Kuwait “will not stand.” Conspiracy theorists, start your engines.

• So here’s where I confess that, as much as I like The Big Lebowski, it doesn’t quite make it into my very top tier of Coen brothers movies. [Ed. note: Wait! Don’t stop reading!] This is primarily because that top tier is really, really hard to get into, given how much I love a handful of Coens movies. But it’s also the case that, hilarious though it is, the movie is a little loose for my taste. Yes, this is true to Chandler, but I always thought he let himself off a bit easy as a writer with his whole narrative dichotomy: There’s no reason one can’t aim to write to write both excellent plots and excellent scenes. Where The Big Lebowski is concerned, almost all the pieces—Jackie Treehorn, Brandt, the nihilists(!)—fit nicely for me in their discursive, Chandlerian way. But there are two exceptions: Julianne Moore’s Maude Lebowski is so arch and mannered that she seems to have wandered in from another film altogether (maybe a David Lynch?), particularly in the scene that concludes with her and a friend played by David Thewlis tittering maniacally. And as much as I love Sam Elliott, his cowboy narrator, The Stranger, doesn’t make a lick of sense, and throws me completely out of the movie. Sure, he’s not really supposed to make sense—as Ethan Coen once said, “Sam would actually ask us, ‘What am I doing in this movie?’ We didn’t know either.” But when it comes to my very favorite Coens movies, it’s a game of inches, and these are enough to keep Lebowski from quite crossing the goal line.

• That said, as a courtesy to those hardcore Lebowski lovers who have not yet canceled your Atlantic subscriptions and/or dismantled your computers, I offer—as I did for Barton Fink—an opportunity for rebuttal by proxy. In this case, I promise that your appointed surrogate loves The Big Lebowski at least as much as, and almost certainly more than, you do. Indeed, if you have ever suffered a moment of doubt in the midst of your totalizing adoration, he’d probably throw you right on the pyre with confirmed heretics such as myself. He’s also responsible for what may be the best pop-cultural metaphor for American politics that I can remember reading in a long while. With that, I pass you on to the nuanced analysis and gentle suasion of my dear friend Jon Chait:

Shut the fuck up, Chris.

Well, I think that pretty much summarizes my response. But, in case more elaboration is needed, The Big Lebowski is not only a truly great movie but a uniquely great one. Its uniqueness can be seen in the deep continuing devotion of its fans—the festivals, books, plays, and other forms of tribute that live on. The best single way to explain its unique appeal is that The Big Lebowski is the only film I know of that is more enjoyable upon second or third, or even fifth or sixth, viewing than the first.

Now, this stems from (here I depart from almost all the Lebowski community) a flaw in the film that you cited: its confusing plot. Fascinating, hysterical, but nonetheless extraneous characters jump in and out of the film. Think of Turturro’s “the Jesus,” or Elliott’s narrator, or Maude’s strange art. Because they are so compelling, they divert the audience from the central characters and the plot involving them, which is perfect. This, I surmise, explains why so many viewers have trouble appreciating it fully on first viewing: You need to have a firm delineation between the plot and the sideshow in order to follow it, and to zero in on the central characters, the Dude and Walter.

Our otherwise excellent reviewer, unfortunately, developed a firm opinion of the movie many years ago after merely one viewing, and has clung stubbornly to it ever since. So you have no frame of reference, Chris. You're like a child who wanders in in the middle of a movie …

Beneath the confusing appendages is a relatively tight story about a crime, which lends itself to completely unexpected comic revelations. A lot of the comedy is narrowly targeted. Walter’s bitter recriminations against Germans—first the bowling league manager (“I told that kraut a fucking thousand times I don't roll on shabbas”) and then the nihilists (“Fucking Germans. Nothing changes”)—will strike anybody with older Jewish relatives as both hysterically familiar and hysterically anomalous, coming from a burly working-class Polish-American. Political thought runs throughout the story, with the right-wing and left-wing Lebowskis, the neoconservative Walter, and the nihilists applying their respective political philosophies to their role in the plot’s caper.

The movie is in large degree a political comedy that, without taking itself remotely seriously, goes far deeper than highbrow fare. That has always made Chris’s failure to fully appreciate its genius all the more disturbing to me.

This will not stand.

And there you have it. I, Dude-like, aspire only to find a way that we can all abide in peace. Jon, by contrast, embraces the combative moral certainty of Walter and the neocons, past and present. Maybe—maybe—my toe slipped over the line a little. Big deal. It’s just a game, man.

Et Cetera:

Where I rank The Big Lebowski among Coens films: #6 (out of 16)

Where I rank its soundtrack, curated by T Bone Burnett, among Coens soundtracks curated by T Bone Burnett: #2 (out of 4)

Best line: “Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

Best visual: The bowling-ball’s-eye views of the world

Best sound: Glass splinters, metal groans, and Walter utters the immortal line [as it was rendered on network TV], “This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps!”

Notable locale: Los Angeles

Notable Influences: Raymond Chandler, Robert Altman

Drinking-game-suitable catchphrase: “It really tied the room together.”

Bonus catchphrase for hard drinkers: “Shut the fuck up, Donny.”

Things that roll: Tumbleweeds, bowling balls

Dream sequence(s): Yes, emphatically

Important scene(s) set in a bathroom: Yes

Number of characters who vomit: Probably zero (It’s a little hard to tell: there’s a moment when it looks as though the Dude will, but ultimately he doesn’t seem to)

John Goodman going berserk: Constantly, magnificently

Next up: O Brother, Where Art Thou?