Every now and then, a great comedy embeds itself in the public psyche, so you’d have to try hard not to notice its impact. The Big Lebowski is such a movie, folks. Now celebrating its 25th Anniversary, this delightful little comedy from the brilliant Joel and Ethan Coen serves as a reminder of all that was once great about Hollywood. From its foul-mouthed humor, twisty plot, and spiritual undertones, The Big Lebowski doesn’t mince words and isn’t afraid of crossing any lines.
The 90s were great, folks.
One of the best things about Lebowski is that it was the Coen’s follow-up to the Academy Award-winning Fargo, a prestigious dramedy that shot the duo into the critical spotlight. Oh sure, pictures such as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, and Barton Fink garnered praise, but all universally loved Fargo. “Films like ‘Fargo’ are why I love the movies,” wrote Roger Ebert.
Joel and Ethan ran away with the Oscar for Best Screenplay that year, while Frances McDormand claimed the trophy for Best Actress. Fargo earned $51M at the worldwide box office, the most earned by the Coens.
Everyone eagerly awaited their next venture. I recall seeing various images of Jeff Bridges and John Goodman in movie magazines with blurbs citing the writer’s excitement to see what the Coens would cook up next. When Lebowski finally hit in the Spring of 1998, I recall quite a few adverse reactions bemoaning the picture for its story, slapstick comedy, and, well, having nothing to do with Fargo.
Still, Lebowski earned about as much as Fargo worldwide but only raked in $17M in the States. Critics were kind but subdued. Ebert was one of the few that sensed greatness early, awarded the film four stars, ranked it among his Great Movies, and surmised, “If a man has a roof over his head, fresh half-and-half for his White Russians, a little weed and his bowling buddies, what more, really, does he need?”
Others took a little longer to join the party.
Since its release, The Big Lebowski has morphed into a genuine classic, its themes resonating as well today as they did in the late 90s. Even more interesting are the unique observation made by people regarding the film’s subtext. Some see the entire picture as a movie about the emasculation of man and point to blatant imagery such as scissors and the abundant amount of weak males in the picture to prove their point — Walter still walks his ex-wife’s dog, for cripes sake! Others cling to the not-so-subtle war massaging — the pic takes place in the early 90s during the first Gulf War, features a lot of Saddam Hussein, and makes apparent references to George Bush, notably, “This will not stand, you know. This aggression will not stand, man.”
There’s even a theory that Julianne Moore’s character, Maude, was behind the kidnapping.
The stars themselves, Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, and Steve Buscemi, had a fun sitdown where they discussed their characters and the film’s meaning. At one point, Bridges posits that Donny isn’t real. None of them can decide if Walter served in Vietnam.
Many fun tidbits exist throughout Lebowski, including words describing male and female genitalia hidden in plain sight. A person would likely have to watch the film a dozen times to catch them all. In this video, Ryan Hollinger points out that the picture foreshadows Donny’s death until his final bowl, when the character turns around to reveal the name “Johnson” stitched into the back of his shirt. Remember how the nihilists kept saying they would cut off the Dude’s johnson? Well, eventually, they did. Sort of. The same video references Alice in Wonderland — the Dude is literally chasing a Bunny — and Raymond Chandler and Vietnam … Google “The Big Lebowski” and note the many articles dissecting the film’s intricate narrative to find meaning.
All this to say, the Coen brothers created a motion picture that one can enjoy at face value as a hilarious comedy or study on a much deeper level. But, like most of their works, the overt symbolism, quippy dialogue, and nonstop literature references can mean anything or nothing at all. It’s like that scene in their film A Serious Man where the main character hears the story about the Goy’s Teeth:
Is there more to the Dude’s story in The Big Lebowski? Maybe. Is any of it significant? Perhaps. Does it matter? Not really. I believe the film suggests we cease trying to control the uncontrollable, cut out the noise, and do what makes us happy. Corruption, war, violence, and filth dominate the world, much of it manipulated by terrible people who don’t give a damn about the little guy. One can certainly choose to fight back against the man, to no avail — or, they can say, “F— it, let’s go bowling.”
Viewers can enjoy The Big Lebowski on so many levels, which is part of its genius. Here is a film that caters to film nerds and general audiences in equal measure. Relentlessly quotable — “Shut the f— up, Donny!” — and packed with amazing characters — don’t f— with Jesus! — films like The Big Lebowski are the reason — to borrow from Mr. Ebert — I love movies. Like a tumbleweed rolling through the desert, it took a little while for this classic comedy to catch up with moviegoers and critics.
No matter — the Dude abides, man, even 25 years later.