His words are quoted, books have been written about him, gatherings are arranged in his honor, and the image of his long hair and flowing robes are legendary. Welcome to the modern cult of The Big Lebowski.
For those uninitiated, Jeff Bridges does not play the ‘Big Lebowski’ in the titular 1998 movie. While the ‘Big’ Lebowski is a millionaire living in his Pasadena mansion, Bridges is Jeffrey Lebowski, aka ‘The Dude’—or ‘El Duderino’ if you’re not into the whole brevity thing—an aging (and unemployed) hippie who lives a modest life in his Venice, California, bungalow. It seems as if this was the role that Bridges was born to play. He even used much of his own wardrobe to outfit himself for the movie.
Released to a tepid critical response and quickly becoming a borderline box-office failure (or “bomb” as some like to call it), The Big Lebowski went on to achieve what I would consider to be the definition of a cult classic. Knowledge of Joel and Ethan Coen’s strange tribute to Los Angeles has been spread by word of mouth, DVD sales, and home-viewing parties. Like all cult classics, it has taken on a life of its own. The film has gone on to spawn books, festivals held in various cities, innumerable online tribute videos, and even a religion.
Set in the Los Angeles area in 1991, The Dude roams the Earth with his two friends—Walter (John Goodman), a brash Vietnam war veteran, and Donny (Steve Buscemi), a meek and often befuddled man—in search of justice, the perfect White Russian cocktail and diversionary games of bowling (sadly, we never actually get to see The Dude bowl). What is this movie about? Well, it’s hard to explain, though I’ve seen this film more times than any other movie in my life. While it seems like almost everyone in the known universe has seen this once-obscure movie, I still run into people that have not seen it and therefore deserves some explanation.
Basically, a rug that “really ties the room together” is stolen from The Dude’s bungalow, precipitating a massive undertaking to recover or replace it. This involves, among other things, confronting the wealthy “Big” Lebowski, becoming involved in an elaborate hostage-negotiation scheme, and German Nihilists. It’s an absurd premise, which results in quite possibly the funniest movie I have ever seen.
Broadly tracking the plotline of The Big Sleep, The Dude and his colorful cast of compatriots work to unravel the misfortunes that have been forced upon him by a simple misunderstanding due to his last name of Lebowski. It turns out his rug was stolen as payment due to some henchmen confusing one Lebowski for another, no matter how different their lives may be. The story unravels from there, pushing The Dude and company towards further encounters with a variety of antagonists (predominantly embodied by Peter Stormare’s excellent Nihilist #1) and the occasional potential ally.
The Coens based some of the characters and incidents in the film on people and anecdotes they had encountered while in Los Angeles. The Dude and Walter are both composite characters; The Dude draws heavily off producer Jeff Dowd and Walter from writer and notorious Hollywood conservative John Milius. The movie is more of a study of the idiosyncratic characters introduced rather than driven by its plot. Walter and Donny serve as The Dude’s de facto family in the absence of any other apparent family structure in the world he inhabits. Even within their threesome, relationships are strained, but outside of the pack no one is trustworthy.
So what is it about this movie that attracts its faithful adherents, and what makes film aficionados remember it fondly rather than just as another commercial flop from a decade ago? Bear in mind that the general viewing population of the United States of America in 1998 hated this movie, hence its economic failure at the box office as compared against such masterpieces of American cinema such as Armageddon and Doctor Dolittle. Rated R for its creative and prolific use of the popular four-letter curse word beginning in “F” (281 times, to be precise), drug use, nudity, and occasional violence involving amphibious rodents, the movie was both doomed to popular obscurity and destined for cult greatness.
If a viewer can get past the seemingly nonsensical premise and plot, one discovers a very funny movie that explores human relationships, friendships, and interactions such as only the exceptionally rare film really can. Part of the film’s appeal definitely comes from the ethos of The Dude himself, which offers a compelling escapist contrast to the inhabitants of the highly competitive atmosphere of the late ‘90s through today. Not only does The Dude not have to carry a steady job, he is also fortunate enough to have two bowling buddies who are willing to fight and die for him. That is true friendship. We all yearn for friends as loyal as Walter and Donny, as eccentric as they may end up being.
The Dude’s ethos of shirking cultural norms, i.e., a steady job, family, and sobriety, continue to appeal in this day and age of global uncertainty, instant communication, and increasing expectations of productivity and profitability. The fantasy of living the slacker lifestyle, of dropping out of the mainstream of society, of embodying all the ideologies that The Dude symbolizes, becomes very attractive. As Sam Elliott’s character of The Stranger (acting as the narrator of the film) says, “The Dude abides.”
For many, The Dude abides as a symbol of a functional savior of Slackerdom. “If only I could be that free, so unencumbered by material concerns,” says the cubicle dwelling drone, or middle manager, or executive, then I would be happy. This is as much of a functional escape, fantasy, or savior from the mundane as materialism provides. We all wish to have the completeness that the Dude has found in an absence of material possessions but in the companionship of close friends.