The Big Lebowski is a comedic masterpiece that hilariously weaves together an intricate plot, unforgettable characters, and satirical commentary on American society and culture.
Unparalleled Characters and Dialogue
The Big Lebowski, with its unique narrative, unforgettable dialogue, and Jeff Bridges’ exceptional performance, is an unparalleled film. Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, the movie tells an absurdly intricate story that immerses its caricatured characters. The standout aspect of The Big Lebowski (1998) is not its plot or even its (admittedly successful) cinematography; unquestionably, the film’s star is the expertly crafted characters, foremost among them the main character, The Dude, portrayed with brilliant acting. The characters and their unforgettable dialogue truly shine. It would be unfair not to mention John Goodman’s flawless performance as Walter and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ability to elicit laughter with just his impeccable facial expressions as Brandt.
The screenplay of the film, with its increasingly convoluted and unresolved plot, each character representing a stereotype in American society, and the narrator transitioning from being an external voice to engaging in conversations with the main character, effectively satirizes both American cultural clichés and screenplay conventions. In less skilled hands, this story could have turned into a disaster, but the Coen brothers’ vision transformed it into a masterpiece that holds a solid place in American popular culture. The characters reflect various stereotypical segments and ideologies of American society, and every minute of the film presents a unique comedy that perfectly portrays the absurd plot and characters through its brilliant dialogue. The Big Lebowski is unlike any other film I have ever seen. It has become a cult classic, leading to the emergence of Dudeism as a religion, inspiring cosplay, and pioneering the “Slacker noir” genre.
Setting Itself Apart: A Unique Narrative Style
When I first came across the film, I approached it with hesitation, thinking it would be a clichéd mainstream American movie. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The film, starting with the weary and sarcastic voice of the cowboy-accented narrator, immediately sets itself apart in its narrative style.
Mr. Lebowski, he called himself “The Dude”. Now, “Dude” – that’s a name no one would self-apply where I come from. But then there was a lot about the Dude that didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
The film begins with the narrator mocking the main character, creating a perfect and absurd harmony as the screenplay ridicules mainstream conventions, characters mock each other, and the plot mocks the characters. The film’s tone reflects The Dude’s attitude – just as The Dude doesn’t take himself or the world seriously, the film doesn’t take the American culture it’s built upon seriously either.
I only mention it because sometimes there’s a man… I won’t say a hero, ’cause, what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here. Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles.
The Dude is a man of simple existence. When the ‘Nihilists’ who are looking for the wealthy ‘Big’ Lebowski (David Huddleston) urinate on The Dude’s rug, The Dude’s simple order is confronted with an external threat, a threat directed at his basic existence. The subsequent events unfold as the Lebowski family tries to manipulate The Dude for their own interests, and The Dude is thrown around in pursuit of his rug, symbolizing his former peaceful life.
The narrator (Sam Elliott) introduces The Dude by following a tumbling tumbleweed rolling through the desert, accompanied by the song “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” whose lyrics reflect The Dude’s stance towards life: “Lonely, but free, I’ll be found / Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.” Like the aimlessly drifting shrub in the desert, The Dude is carried along in his own story.
Another song from Bob Dylan, “The Man In Me,” perfectly reflects The Dude’s story in the film. When Dylan’s voice intertwines with The Dude’s narrative, his weariness and indifference are palpable in the lyrics:
The man in me will do nearly any task / And as for compensation, there’s little he would ask / Take a woman like you / To get through to the man in me.
In The Big Lebowski, after Bunny (Tara Reid) goes missing, she asks The Dude, while crying, “What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski? Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn’t that what makes a man?” To which he replies, “Hmmm… Sure, that and a pair of testicles.” Throughout the film, we see a mockery of the concept of masculinity, and the atmosphere created by this song supports that satirical tone. The characters are as different from each other as possible, often even starkly contrasting. The Dude, an aging hippie and pacifist, has his closest friend in Walter (John Goodman), a war-supporting Vietnam War veteran. The stark contrast between the two friends gives rise to magnificent dialogues.
Walter: (yelling) Am I wrong?
Dude: No, you’re not wrong.
Walter: Am I wrong?
Dude: You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole.
Walter: Okay then.
Caricatures and Satire of American Society
Each character in the film represents a different archetype within American society. The movie contains a substantial amount of profanity and racist references, with occasional interventions by the characters themselves. For example, when the narrator encounters The Dude at the bowling alley, he asks him why he uses so much profanity, receiving an answer in the same language. Similarly, when Walter warns The Dude not to say “Chinaman,” he himself uses the same term: as The Dude recounts the incident with the “Nihilists” who vandalized his rug by saying, “They peed on my rug, man,” Walter interjects, saying, “Dude ‘Chinaman’ is not the preferred nomenclature, Asian-American please.” only to continue using the term “Chinaman” himself. Another example is the presence of Spanish music in every scene involving Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), highlighting his Spanish heritage. The film exaggerates and caricatures different identities, thereby increasing the contrast between the characters and enhancing the humor. The film’s colors also contribute to this caricatured style, with a sharp palette that is particularly evident in the bowling alley scenes. Through its clear and stylized visual language, the film provides viewers with a sense of simplicity and relief as the story becomes increasingly convoluted.
The film uses irony as a tool, mocking everything from racial clichés to ideological clichés. Those who take the film’s discourse and events seriously, analyzing it according to the rules of political correctness, may find the film problematic. However, in doing so, they would also be breaking the film’s first and only rule: Take it easy, don’t take it seriously. Those who calmly examine the film will readily see that it is not intended to deliver a political message or to be taken seriously. The film mocks not only societal norms but also cinematic norms that audiences are accustomed to. The protagonist, The Dude, unintentionally plays detective in pursuit of the central mystery that connects the plot, offering a ludicrous imitation of the main characters in Noir films. The constant presence of The Dude drinking White Russians is not only a nod to the whisky-drinking heroes of noir films but also contributes to the ongoing ironic racist discourse in the film. The movie touches upon various races, religions, ideologies, and communities such as Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Jewish, Nazi, Nihilist, feminist, and hippie. These references are used to feed the chaotic comedy of the film rather than convey any specific political message.
Challenging Conventions and Religious Dogma
The film also challenges organized religions, including the fictional faith called Dudeism. The line “Nobody fucks with Jesus” by Jesus Quintana is among the memorable quotes from the movie. This line, combined with Walter repeatedly emphasizing his Jewishness due to his “ex-wife,” and The Dude being compared to Jesus by the cowboy narrator, demonstrates the film’s disregard for religious dogma:
“It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.”
Isn’t it a reference to the deification of the cowboy figure in American cinema during the Western years that the narrator, portrayed by Sam Elliott, is a cowboy? This homage to the cowboy figure in American cinema history connects the film’s references to American culture. The Dude’s motto, “The Dude Abides…”
The Dude’s laid-back and carefree philosophy of life has paved the way for a dedicated fan base that quotes the film, organizes costume parties, and turns the movie into a way of life, immortalizing it. To examine the film’s fans, one can refer to the documentary “The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans” where movements such as Dudeism, a religion centered around The Dude’s philosophy, and The Day of the Dude, which humorously sanctifies The Dude’s worldview, have emerged. The documentary takes its name from the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers scholarship foundation, led by The Big Lebowski in the film. Undoubtedly, The Big Lebowski has provided material for numerous communities and movements. It is evident that The Big Lebowski, beyond drawing inspiration from American society and culture, has created a new American popular culture.
Parodying American Culture and Wealth
The characters in the film, to a large extent, parody the typical Americanness of their time, rather than simply praising American culture. Maude, the daughter of The Big Lebowski (Julianne Moore), represents a touch of the art world with her bohemian home, innovative and feminist art, and interesting friends. Through The Big Lebowski, the film satirizes the concept of being “great” and the notion of “achievement,” mocking the capitalist figurehead with his undeserved sense of accomplishment. The Big Lebowski, who acts as if he has earned everything through hard work but is actually indebted to his wife for his entire wealth, and Jackie Treehorn (played by Ben Gazzara), who owes his wealth to producing pornography films and objectifying women, represent the corrupt wealthy and powerful patrons of the system.
The Dude complains, “Jackie Treehorn treats objects like women, man.” It is evident from The Dude’s attempt to concern himself with the objectification of women that this act of concern is not his forte. Furthermore, Bunny, the objectified woman in the film, does not seem to have any complaints about this situation. Maude, who claims that her art is criticized for being too “vaginal,” uses The Dude as an object for her own interests. Nevertheless, at the end of the story, The Dude is back at the bowling alley, enjoying himself because, no matter what others do, The Dude abides.
The unique aspect of the story lies in the discordance of its elements, which leads to a ludicrous chaos rather than a harmonious coherence. At the beginning of the film, the narrator informs us that the story takes place during the Gulf War, and we learn that The Dude is an ex-hippie and a pacifist. However, throughout the story, The Dude shows no interest in politics or any effort to change the world. He has accepted that he cannot change anything and now simply tries to maintain the familiar order of his own life. The incongruities in his life are not of great importance to The Dude because “The Dude abides.” As he tries to solve the mystery in his own logical way, he attempts to bring some coherence to the story. He can even connect unrelated events and sentences to each other.
An example of this is when he writes a check for 69 cents to pay for a carton of milk at the grocery store and, while doing so, he hears a news report on the television above the cashier. “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” The Dude later uses this line against The Big Lebowski, albeit for a completely different purpose, saying, “This will not stand, ya know, this aggression will not stand, man.” There is no doubt that attacks against The Dude will not endure. Despite all the attacks and unsolvable mysteries, knowing that The Dude abides and adapts to life reassures us sinners.
Last modified: September 24, 2023