I've heard for years about The Big Lebowski, enough to know that it's about a slacker dude who mainly hangs out in a bowling alley. I knew that he was called "The Dude", and that his most famous line is, "The Dude abides." And yet, I'd never actually seen the movie until recently. I always tend to take my sweet time getting around to things that everybody says I should already know about; most of the filmography of the Coen Brothers is one thing I most definitely need to get through.
The Big Lebowski most definitely involves a guy who goes by the name "The Dude"; he's played by Jeff Bridges as a kind of mystical blend of Obi Wan Kenobi and Tommy Chong. He needs half-and-half for home, and he pays for it with a check written for $.69. In most scenes he has his favorite drink, a White Russian, in his hand. He wears sunglasses constantly, has a weird habit of incorporating things he hears into his everyday conversations, and – in the masterstroke that leads to most of the movie's zaniest and funniest bits of comedy – actually turns out to have the strongest grasp of reality of any of the guys in his small circle of friends.
Description of the plot of The Big Lebowski is something of a fool's errand, as some of the particulars of the plot evade description entirely, while others seem utterly, utterly silly when described outside of their context. This is one of those movies that you have to see to really get, and even then, you might not really get it. Our story opens with an introduction to The Dude, who is out of cream for his White Russians so he goes to the grocery store in his bathrobe and slippers to get some, paying with a check he writes for $.69. (In a spooky bit of coincidence that couldn't possibly have been planned, we hear in the background as The Dude writes his check the voice of President George HW Bush, talking about Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait – and the date on the check is Sept. 11, 1991.)
The Dude goes home with his half-and-half, where he is attacked by hoodlums in his own apartment who are demanding that The Dude "pay up". But, he's with it enough to realize that they have accosted the wrong Lebowski. Not that this matters to the hoodlums, one of whom makes his big exit statement by urinating on The Dude's throw rug. This will become a major driving point in the plot: The Dude's desire to get restitution for his crappy rug, a rug which all of The Dude's friends agree "really tied the room together". So The Dude tracks down the right Lebowski, which draws him into some kind of rich-family intrigue involving kidnapping, money drops, and...well, a whole lot of gonzo stuff.
The Dude endures all this with the support of his two best friends: a clueless bowler named Donny who is constantly trying to catch back up to the conversation, and Walter, a Jewish security contractor who served in Vietnam and who has all manner of anger issues and who is unbelievably foul-mouthed. These three oddly-matched friends discuss things at their sanctum sanctorum, a local bowling alley where they are members of a league. Donny is forever not quite hearing the discussion, but his every attempt to catch back up is met by a harsh "Shut the f*** up, Donny," from Walter.
The Big Lebowski is one of the most foul-mouthed movies I've ever seen. This doesn't bother me at all, but for folks who are turned off by salty language, this movie will turn you off within five minutes of the first title card on the screen. The language forms its own poetry, though, giving nearly every conversation in the film a kind of rhythm all its own. It's really very fascinating to listen to the permutations of the various curses, expletives, and naughty phrases our language has to offer. John Goodman's Walter engages in a lot of this, and he has what is my favorite line in the movie: "Life does not stop and start at your convenience, you miserable piece of shit."
A movie like this desperately needs a cast capable of pulling it off, and Jeff Bridges as The Dude is...well, I figured Bridges had been born to play Kevin Flynn in TRON, but now I see that he was really born to play The Dude. I just love his weird blend of wisdom and stoner slackitude; all through the movie, Bridges makes it seem like The Dude understands what's happening to him on some instinctive, subconscious level, but he can't really put it into words. And it's that inability which leads him into new situations, each one more bizarre than the last, because he wasn't able to just articulate things. I also love how he's able to come up with some witty responses to some of the things that happen to him, such as when the thugs first break into his apartment and threaten him. One of them shoves The Dude's head into the toilet several times, each time shouting "Where's the money, Lebowski? Where is it?" The Dude clearly has no idea what he's talking about, but instead of protesting, he says, "Uh, I think I see it down there. Let me take another look." And down goes his head, into the toilet again.
Given that this is a Coen Brothers movie, there's a liberal use of music and song to create mood, right from the 1970s bowling-alley graphics that form the main titles. O Brother Where Art Thou? may have had a more famous soundtrack, but the musical choices in The Big Lebowski are as skillfully made, with each song seeming to exist, as do the people in the movie, in some backwater world that we on the outside aren't always aware of.
Near the end of the film, The Dude utters his most famous line, "The Dude abides." He sure does. He's probably out there right now, somewhere, abiding away. I wonder if he ever got another rug, or if whatever rug he eventually got tied the room together as well as the first one.