The Big Lebowski – dir. Joel and Ethan Coen – 1998 – Original Theatrical Trailer
It’s a little ironic that The Dude, Jeff Bridges’ slacker character in the Coen brothers’ 1998 comedy The Big Lebowski, is introduced as “the man for his time and place” (in this case, that time and place is early nineties Los Angeles). I say this partly because critics and audiences routinely peg The Dude as a sixties throwback, a longhaired stoner comfortably out of his time; and partly because The Big Lebowski itself feels like a film out of its time, and even ahead of it. While it’s true that Lebowski harks back to the cinema and pop culture of other eras – from its drawling cowboy narrator out of an old western to its messy Big Sleep-inspired noir plot – and to the Coens’ prior body of work (traces of Raising Arizona abound), it feels like a weirdly prescient piece of filmmaking today.
The film’s genial pileup of styles and references, its jarring juxtapositions of familiar tropes in unfamiliar places, may not have helped it to set the box office alight in 1998 (It didn’t.), but the way that it revels in its own absurdity seems right at home in our current comedy climate of Napoleon Dynamite and Robot Chicken. It’s true that the Coens may not have been aiming for much more than a knowing cult audience for The Big Lebowski: there’s a certain level of defiance in their decision to follow the massive critical and commercial success of 1996’s brilliant Fargo with a picture as flippant and funky as this. “My guess is that the contrary Coens don’t want to be that accessible, much less loved,” Peter Travers posited in Rolling Stone. But I wouldn’t want to reduce The Big Lebowski merely to a brush-off of the mainstream. Rather, the Coens are at their most playful and unrestrained here, and they don’t happen to care whether there’s a large audience ready to come along for the ride or not. As it happens, it took most of us a few years to catch up.
Of course, the film’s head-turning wartime motif feels more relevant in light of our current national state of affairs than it did at the tail end of the Clinton era. The Dude’s friend, a war vet named Walter, is all-but-unable to avoid raising the specter of Vietnam at every opportunity, and the Gulf War simmers behind the action on television and in The Dude’s dreams. (A cameo from Saddam Hussein, renting out bowling shoes in one of The Dude’s loopy fantasy sequences, is among the film’s more memorable moments.) Like Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, also released in 1998 and also gaining much of its cult audience after the fact, The Big Lebowski’s backward look unexpectedly pitches it into the future. In a DVD review for Film Threat, critic Brad Cook attempts to sort out the satiric implications of the whole wild tale: “The Coens are masters of understatement, so pay attention to the news on the TV during the opening supermarket scene and compare it to Walter egging the Dude onto a path that ultimately leads nowhere. Hmmmm … Perhaps the Coens were making a subtle political comment here?” I wouldn’t doubt it.
The past decade has altered, and elevated, the status of The Big Lebowski to the extent that The Dude has become a recognizable icon, regardless what era he seems to best fit. There’s a pizza named after him at famed New York City pizza joint Two Boots (an honor reserved for such celebrated cult figures as Seinfeld’s Newman and Reservoir Dogs’ Mr. Pink), and Jeff Bridges even resurrected the role to an extent in 2007’s Surf’s Up, this time in the kid-friendly guise of an animated talking penguin. Yet the growing familiarity of The Dude as a cult character, co-opted as a patron saint for slackers everywhere, doesn’t dull the sharp edge of The Big Lebowski’s humor on repeat viewings any more than decades of sub par De Niro impressions have sapped Taxi Driver of its intensity. As one follows Lebowski’s cheerfully labyrinthine plot, in which almost everyone turns out to be less than meets the eye, there’s a definite sense that the contrary Coens are onto something hilarious but not nearly as frivolous as they pretend.
For their own part in addressing the delayed success of The Big Lebowski – now the subject of books and conventions, a dorm room mainstay and midnight movie staple – the Coens have been characteristically coy. For the 2005 re-release of the film on DVD, they constructed an introduction for the film by faux film preservationist Mortimer Young, who relates how The Big Lebowski was more or less shunned in the late nineties and “slipped beneath the waves” before being painstakingly restored at long last from the only quality print of the film that still survived, fortuitously discovered in Italy. It’s a cheeky little addition and fairly typical of the guys who tried to sell us on Fargo being a true story, but amid the joshing I detect a deserved sense of pride and satisfaction. The Dude abides.