The Dude Abides – Twenty Years of Lebowski

Ken Jones

  • Chief Film Critic

I just found out The Big Lebowski was released on March 6th twenty years ago. Not only is it my favorite Coen brothers movie and my favorite comedy, it is my personal #1 movie of all time. Having spent two decades watching this movie multiple times, I wanted to share a bit about my love for all things Lebowski.

The mid-to-late 90s were really my formative movie years. I grew up as a child of the 80s, and watched all of the classics like Ghostbusters and The Goonies like any average 80s kid. Growing up in a very conservative Christian family, I missed out on some of the staples that some of my friends experienced, like Freddy Krueger and Jason, for instance. However, my parents decided when I turned 11 that I was old enough to watch Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and that opened the flood gates for me. My teenage years were when I started watching “grown-up” movies and movies that were older than I was. Se7en was a seminal movie moment for me; I still remember watching Alien for the first time. I watched a lot of junk, for sure, but I was also getting exposed to directors like David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, John Carpenter, Ridley Scott, and the Coens.

Such that it was that I caught The Big Lebowski during my senior year of high school on VHS(!!!) after renting it from the local video store(!!!), sometime during late 1998/early 1999. Thinking back, I don’t recall how I ended up selecting it at the time. The trailers, available on YouTube, certainly don’t do the movie justice. It could have been that I had seen Fargo and was interested in what the Coen brothers made next. It could have just been a happy accident; maybe I wanted to see another bowling movie after Kingpin.

A lot of Lebowski fans say that you need to watch it three or four times, maybe under the influence of some foreign substances even, in order to fully appreciate it. You need to get beyond the fact that the shaggy dog “plot” is pretty much nonsense and utterly absurd and once you do that you get to love The Dude (Jeff Bridges), Walter (John Goodman), and Donnie (Steve Buscemi) and the crazy characters around them. I didn’t need three or four viewing to like this movie; it hooked me early on and I was an easy mark. By the time Walter inadvertently gets The Dude covered in ashes after eulogizing Donnie, I was fully on board with this weird, wonderful flick.

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While I didn’t need three or four viewing of Lebowski to fall in love with it, repeated viewings opened up a vast world and made the movie even funnier and enjoyable than I found it on first viewing. Like the best movies, it rewarded multiple viewings. It’s odd for a movie where the plot really doesn’t matter to be so dense with content, but it’s an amazingly layered movie. Even the small, likely goofs, enhance the viewing experience.

For instance, when we are first introduced to Brandt, and he’s talking up the Big Lebowski to The Dude with a rehearsed line about the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers (“And proud we are of all of them.”), he says they are “inner city children of promise but without the necessary means for a - necessary means for a higher education.” It sounds like a line flub, but it fits the character so completely and it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman that it still works and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Coens just decided to keep it in. By the way, no surprise, but Hoffman is such a treat as Brandt, one of the many delightful minor roles in this movie.

When I got to college and with the rapid growth of the internet, I discovered that a cult following had quickly grown up around this eminently quotable movie. It became my go-to “You have to see it!” movie to show someone if they’ve never seen it. I even dressed up as The Dude for a Halloween party once. Crazy internet theories abound about the movie; the funniest one I’ve heard is the idea that Donnie isn’t real and is only a figment of Walter’s imagination (This theory almost works, because 99% of the time Walter is the only person who directly acknowledges Donnie, except after The Dude’s care is stolen and as he’s walking away Donnie asks where he’s going, to which The Dude responds, “Home, Donnie.”).

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One of my favorite little tidbits of the movie that I’m sure others have noticed, but I’ve never seen discussed at any length online, is the possibility that Walter (briefly) loses his ex-wife’s Pomeranian after taking it bowling. The Dude and Walter walk out to the car with the dog barking at their heels, Walter opens the back seat door and puts his stuff in the back seat and they both get into the car, but once the doors close the barking is not heard anymore. The Pomeranian appears later licking the fallen Big Lebowski after Walter dumps him from his wheelchair, convinced that he CAN walk, but I like to imagine that when we don’t see Walter around The Dude he is frantically searching for his ex-wife’s Pomeranian.

Arguably the most memorable character in the long, storied career of Jeff Bridges, the standout is really John Goodman as Walter Sobchak. Walter, a veteran who relates everything to the Vietnam War, is by far the most outrageous character in a movie littered with eccentric characters. The Dude is right, everything is a f***ing travesty with him. Walter insinuates himself into the ransom plans, making sure people adhere strictly to the rules of bowling (It’s a league game, Smokey), interrogating a 15 year-old who is flunking social studies, or taking most seriously his adopted Jewish heritage (three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax), Walter is a bull in the china shop of life, but he actually does have a heart for his friends. Walter is Goodman’s best performance, and looking back at the nominees, it’s borderline criminal that he didn’t get nominated for the performance.

And of course, at the center of it all is The Dude, the rug that ties the room together. Bridges’ iconic character just drifts through life without a care in the world, content to subsist on White Russians, bowling, and the occasional acid flashback. The Dude is the chilliest character in the history of film, pretty much just going with the flow, until two thugs of a known pornographer Jackie Treehorn (who “treats objects like women, man”) show up and pee on his rug. From that incident, he’s thrust into his own Raymond Chandler detective story, meeting the Big Lebowski, Maude Lebowski, Jackie Treehorn, Jesus Quintana, and nihilists. The Dude stumbles through the entire movie; I love that when he actually tries to do a bit of actual detective work, at Jackie Treehorn’s party, he ends up merely uncovering a drawing of a dirty picture.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen The Big Lebowski, I lost count years ago. I still get excited whenever I hear Sam Elliott’s The Stranger start rambling about the laziest man in Los Angeles. I still enjoy hanging out with these characters, and the enjoyments of the movie change with each viewing. Twenty years on, it’s still comforting knowing that The Dude is out there taking ‘er easy for all of us sinners.