I was late to the Lebowski party, having somehow carried on an existence without it up until my freshman year of college, when I first joined the Dude, Walter and Donnie on their neo noir odyssey across Los Angeles. Over the next 12 months, I lost track of how many times I revisited this, compulsively converting new followers and experiencing it on a whole new level over many a delicious White Russian. It wasn’t until sometime later that I was able to get over my cult like fascination with the movie and do something I never thought to do – take it seriously.
And I don’t mean to suggest that The Big Lebowski should be so burdened with analysis that it becomes impossible to kick back and watch the hilarity of it all ensue. But dammit, this is a brilliant film, delivering nothing short of comic gold while adapting the trickiest of genres – noir – to the slacker culture of early 90s Los Angeles. When Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski’s rug is soiled after a case of mistaken identity, he embarks on a quest for reimbursement that spirals into a convoluted Raymond Chandler style plot that deceptively drives The Dude further off course as the clues, characters and car troubles escalate to the extreme. So it’s a neo-noir comedy, but it also takes cues from Westerns (hence the presence of Sam Elliot in cowboy gear) and Busby Berkeley musicals (The Dude’s porno hallucination) and you could even argue it’s a historical piece (set against the backdrop of The Gulf War). The cast consists mostly of memorable cameos, oddball characters that drop in to make The Dude’s life more complicated only to prove unimportant no matter which way you look at things. But for that we get Ben Gazzara as slick porn mogul Jackie Treehorn, David Thewlis as the literally hysterical Knox Harrington, Joe Polito as meddling snoop DaFino, and John Turturro as the one and only The Jesus. Even the more significant supporting players – Julianne Moore as the icy Maude Lebowski, Phillip Seymour Hoffman as loyal lapdog Brandt, the band of nihilists lead by Peter Storemare – prove nothing more than diversions from the real solution. But then again, if all these characters don’t really factor into any grand scheme, at least they provide The Dude with a reason to get out of the bowling alley, and in one case, out of the bathtub.
I can’t believe I’ve gone so far without singling out Jeff Bridges, but he embodies The Dude like only an actor of his ease could do, and truly he’s what ties the film together. Playing perfectly off his passive approach to life is John Goodman as bowling buddy and ‘Nam vet Walter, and along with their more diminutive teammate Donnie, they form the core of the movie, with the bowling alley being the one constant in The Dude’s suddenly upturned life. In that way, the film does set itself apart from noir, for although The Dude is as unlikely a hero as there ever way, he has his close friends, who despite their flaws, are there with him to the bitter end. And ultimately, as the film draws to a close, we understand at last that those are the bonds that mattered the most to The Dude, and this whole charade that started with one ruined rug wasn’t worth one night in the bowling alley.