not in our stars, but in ourselves
12/52: A movie that made you laugh till you cried
The Big Lebowski is one of the best movies to come out during my lifetime. This isn’t a controversial statement, I’m sure, but seriously – there’s no question about it. Additionally, it’s one of the best film noirs out there, and perhaps the most quotable movies of all time; and as if all of this weren’t enough, it’s also funny as hell. I cannot count how many times I’ve seen it, and I laugh like a drunk hyena every time. Some of my more heavily rewatched movies end up feeling like old friends, comfortable and familiar. The Big Lebowski is fresh every time. No matter how much I remember it and replay it in my mind, it still feels exactly as great and new and wild as the first time I saw it. That’s quite a feat.
The Dude (Jeff Bridges) – real name Jeffrey Lebowski – is an unemployed hippie burnout in Los Angeles in 1991. One night, two young thugs break into his apartment and demand money that his wife owes to someone named Jackie Treehorn. The Dude denies any knowledge of anyone they’ve just mentioned, and insists that he’s not even married. The would-be collectors realize that this is the wrong Lebowski, so they pee on his rug and leave. This does not please the Dude. He tells his bowling buddies, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi), and complains that the rug really tied the room together. Walter advises the Dude to get in touch with “the other Lebowski”: Jeffrey Lebowski, an old man who runs several charities and lives in an enormous mansion. The Dude asks Lebowski if he could be compensated for his rug, and Lebowski flatly refuses. Back in the ’60s, the Dude would have been one of the cool counterculture kids, and Lebowski would have been one of the resentful grownups shaking their head in disgust. For both Lebowskis, the ’60s have never really ended. The Dude walks out as Lebowski rants and raves, and tells Lebowski’s assistant, Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), that Lebowski said he could take any rug in the house. While he’s leaving, the Dude meets Bunny (Tara Reid), Lebowski’s trophy wife. She offers to give him a blow job (she couches it in slightly more colorful language) for $10,000, but Brandt hurries him back to his car. Some days later, Lebowski contacts the Dude: Bunny has been kidnapped, and Lebowski wants the Dude to deliver the ransom and see if he recognizes the kidnappers. The Dude tells Walter and Donny about the latest development, mentioning that he doubts she’s really been kidnapped – that she probably sent the ransom note herself so she could pay off Jackie Treehorn – and Walter develops a crackpot scheme to keep the ransom money for themselves. Different thugs break into the Dude’s apartment, and when he comes to, his new rug has been stolen. After a botched “ransom” delivery with Walter, the Dude’s car is stolen, with the real ransom briefcase still inside. Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), Jeffrey Lebowski’s estranged artsy daughter, calls the Dude to explain that (a) she hired the new thugs to take back the rug, because it had been a gift; (b) the “kidnappers” are indeed Bunny’s friends (and nihilists, at that) from her days as a porn actress; (c) her father had embezzled money out of one of his charities to provide the ransom money because he is in fact broke; and (d) she’ll compensate the Dude if he helps to recover the ransom money, so that he can buy as many rugs as he likes.
Are you getting the idea, if you haven’t seen it? In the tradition of film noirs like The Big Sleep, the plot is an intricately tangled mess – or so it seems. Joel and Ethan Coen have a much better handle on their beast of a plot than the myriad writers of The Big Sleep did, I’d say. For one thing, they’ve even managed to weave an allegory of the Gulf War into all of this. There are several sources and interpretations, but the cleanest breakdown of the players comes from here, and goes as follows:
The Dude: Kuwait
Walter: United States
Donnie: Israel [I personally would argue that Donnie is more like Canada or something]
Lebowski: President Bush
Brandt: United Nations
Bunny Lebowski: Saddam
Treehorn’s thugs: Iraqi Army
The Nihilists: The Elite Republican Guard (division of the Iraqi army)
Jackie Treehorn: Egypt
Some other pairings: the Sheriff of Malibu as the Islamic Brotherhood, Smokey the bowling competitor as pacifists in general, Jesus “The Jesus” Quintana (a more colorful bowling competitor) as Osama bin Laden, and the Stranger (also the narrator) as CNN. It’s a pretty spot-on political satire, even though political satire is just one of the Coens’ many dartboards in this. (For a more thorough reading of The Big Lebowski‘s politics, have a gander at this Slate piece.)
The main dartboard is film noir, and they have – with love and care and expert precision – hit a bullseye. There are different schools of thought about what specifically constitutes a noir, but aside from the cinematographic hallmarks of the ’40s (deep, angular shadows, seemingly cast all the way from the ’20s in the Weimar Republic), the basic gist is something like this: an everyman is, all of a sudden, thrown into Hell, whence he has to escape. (One wonders how many wanky academic papers there are, comparing Humphrey Bogart to Dante Alighieri. I bet they’re fascinating, too.) That’s the Dude, to a tee. He has no ambition beyond bowling, no special thoughts or insights, no remarkable traits or features (except perhaps his jelly sandals). He’s just a washed up hippie who has the bad luck to have the same improbable name as someone else. He’s not so very different from the hard-boiled drunks and private eyes of ’40s noirs, with his affinity for white russians and marijuana, and so: into Hell he goes.
Like its ’40s predecessors, The Big Lebowski seems to have two basic female roles – both basically temptresses, but of different sorts. There’s Bunny, the “nymphomaniac,” who recalls Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep: a no-good (but plenty fun) good-time girl who creates chaos everywhere she goes, utterly indifferent to the problems it creates for everyone around her (of all the nymphs, she’d probably be a maenad). And then there’s Maude, somewhat more like Lauren Bacall in the same, but with strong dashes of Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner thrown in: free-spirited, cosmopolitan, strong-willed, independent, basically willing to serve law and order, but not to serve any man. On the good/evil/chaotic/lawful matrix, Bunny would probably be chaotic neutral while Maude would be lawful neutral. (Neither of them is good or evil, really.) Is that a slightly retro view of womanhood? Sure. Do I mind? Not a bit. Let Bunny fulfill the come-hither blonde bombshell stereotype, and let Maude fulfill the aggressive redhead/brunette stereotype* (it’s not for nothing that she appears as a Valkyrie in the Dude’s dream sequence). It’s royal fun for everyone.
Finally – because I’ve rambled quite a bit here – I think The Big Lebowski should prove, quite definitively, that swearing is only a detriment to language if the person wielding that language is inept. With its 260 uses of the word “fuck” (and variants thereof), it is a deeply sweary movie. And it’s fucking funny, man. Consider:
Walter: My point is, here we are, it’s shabbas, the sabbath, which I’m allowed to break only if it’s a matter of life or death…
The Dude: Will you come off it, Walter?! You’re not even fucking Jewish, man.
Walter: What the fuck are you talkin’ about?
The Dude: Man, you’re fucking Polish Catholic…
Walter: What the fuck are you talking about?! I converted when I married Cynthia! Come on, Dude!
The Dude: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah…
Walter: And you know this!
The Dude: Yeah, and five fucking years ago you were divorced!
Walter: So what are you saying? When you get divorced, you turn in your library card? You get a new license? You stop being Jewish? I’m as Jewish as fucking Tevye!
The Dude: It’s all a part of your sick Cynthia thing, man! Taking care of her fucking dog, going to her fucking synagogue. You’re living in the fucking past!
Walter Sobchak: Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax…YOU’RE GODDAMN RIGHT I’M LIVING IN THE FUCKING PAST!!!
It adds such zest, such spice. The famous rant from Walter, when he yells (at a 15-year-old), “DO YOU SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FUCK A STRANGER IN THE ASS????” becomes “DO YOU SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU meet a stranger in the Alps” in the edited-for-TV version. It’s also funny, but not in the way it’s meant to be. I have been criticized myself for “occasionally” using language that would make a sailor blush, but I submit for your scholarly inspection: there’s nothing wrong with swearing. If you know what you’re doing – and I’m not saying I do, but I am trying – it’s just one more rich vein to tap into while crafting your crescendos of invective.
Hey man, don’t take my word for it. The Dude abides.
*Francophone Beyoncé fans may well recognize the French speech in “Partition” as a translation of Maude Lebowski’s speech about feminists enjoying sex. Queen Bey, you bless us even when we don’t realize it.