(Polygram) We've all seen The Big Lebowski by now, haven't we? It's that great late-'90s stoner comedy starring Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey “the Dude” Lebowski, a model of American manhood; John Goodman as highly-strung, gun-toting war vet Walter Sobchak; Steve Buscemi as the meek Theodore Donald “Donny” Kerabatsos; and David Huddleston as uptight millionaire Jeffrey “The Big Lebowski” Lebowski. These are iconic figures in our popular culture, and everyone who's ever been to college in the U.S. knows their names. But ask them who directed the film, and a great many will probably have no idea.
The answer is, of course, Joel and Ethan Coen – film-geek favorites and creators of such famously byzantine art-house classics as Barton Fink, A Serious Man, No Country for Old Men, and The Man Who Wasn't There. Wait... a stoner comedy directed by Joel and Ethan Coen? Those egghead brothers who love multi-layered plots and stylish ambiguity? Is it possible there's more going on in this goofy tale of purloined rugs, kidnapped mistresses, and bowling than meets the eye? Once again: have we all really seen The Big Lebowski?
On the surface, the Dude's odyssey through high- and low-society intrigue seems like a screwball fairytale of sorts. He's just a man who wants his rug back, because it “really tied the room together.” He cares about bowling, drinking White Russians, smoking the reefer, and just generally trying to cool out and stay centered, man. So, what's the difference between this story and, say, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle?
The difference is that each character can be read as an archetype of American culture in the late Twentieth Century. The Dude is an ex-hippie – former member of the Seattle Seven, along with, “uh, six other guys.” He's not just some slacker baking his brain for the hell of it; he's trying to forget a history of failed idealism and corporately co-opted values. Walter isn't just a laughable right-wing reactionary who converted to Judaism for a girl; he's a sweet man damaged by his involvement in the military and his loss of faith in a just world. The Big Lebowski is the personification of the self-righteous, self-made American businessman who thinks he's better than everyone of lower financial status. Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) is the bohemian artist and feminist who lives outside of the mainstream, making satirical statements about it, and thinking herself equally superior.
Each of these characters has chosen a different way to deal with living in a broken culture in a declining empire. The Coens give us little hints about this veiled reading of the film, such as the news footage of Saddam Hussein playing in the background of many scenes. Most notable of these hints is the Stranger (Sam Elliott), who narrates the story: he's the classic cowboy figure – the American myth – and he seems to be evaluating these events with befuddled acceptance. His role is that of the cultural consciousness, the vague idea we Americans have of who we are. He's a little bit sad about the unintended casualties of our actions, and he wishes we didn't have to swear quite so much, but he's ultimately glad the Dude is out there “takin' 'er easy for all us sinners.” The Dude may not be an admirable man in the traditional rugged-individualist sense, but at least he's not actively contributing to the destruction of our society.
The other major clue to the hidden story of the film is the title itself, a reference to Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. The Coens originally conceived of The Big Lebowski as a riff on the Chandleresque detective story, in which nothing is ever quite resolved, and the threads never quite come together satisfactorily. Who are the Dude and his friends up against? Ostensibly, it's the Nihilists, who “believe in nah-sing!”; however, they turn out to be little more than bumbling fools with delusions of grandeur. What, then, is really going on in the story? It's all just a tangled ball of chaos caused by self-interested people stumbling around in the dark – much like real life. The existential futility of logical investigation in an illogical world is at the heart of what the Coens are trying to say here.
So, have we really seen The Big Lebowski? Not until we've seen the tragedy behind the farce. In the end, the story hinges on the gentlest and quietest of characters: Donny. His fate isn't decided by anyone's direct actions; he simply can't take any more of the drama and stress of dealing with everyone else's petty squabbles. If everyone here is an archetype, then Donny is the good, kind, and decent soul just trying to get along without hurting anyone. Yes, that quality is present in American culture, but it's too often lost in the shouting, scheming, and violence that occur every hour of every day. All in all, that's an impressively elaborate metaphor to be found in a silly comedy that most kids watch for its stoner style.
For Fans Of: No Country for Old Men, Barton Fink, Dazed and Confused, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Half Baked
Why We Like It: a melancholy examination of American life couched in a stoner comedy, subtle use of metaphor and symbol, endlessly quotable dialogue, classic performances, one of the smartest dumb movies in history