The Big Lebowski turns 20: Zany inventiveness of Coen Brothers' masterpiece remains unrivalled
20 years after it released, the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski remains a masterclass in angular, rebellious writing
In an interview with Variety magazine in 2016, Joel and Ethan Coen confirmed that they will never mount a sequel to The Big Lebowski. The announcement came as music to the ears. Not only because it’s a truth universally acknowledged that sequels — more often than not — end up tarnishing the legacy of an original classic, but also because no one — not even the Coen brothers themselves — can possibly emulate the sheer zany inventiveness that is The Big Lebowski. And, to be frank, as far as cinema is concerned, there are very few things that the Coens are incapable of.
Twenty years ago to the day, The Big Lebowski (TBL) released in the US. The Coens had just tasted Oscar success with Fargo, released in 1996 to widespread critical acclaim. They were being celebrated as two of the most talented auteurs working in the American cinema. But nothing, not even the propulsive madness — and Nicolas Cage — of Raising Arizona, could have prepared audiences for what the brothers chose to follow Fargo with.
The Coens often appear to know everything about cinema and nothing about real life. Not that they ever let it get in their way. Conversely, the moment you begin viewing a Coen film, you take the first step into Coenland. You encounter characters who exist slightly left of reality. They seem keenly familiar and strange at the same time. You feel that were you to run into one of them in a street on a bright, sunny morning, shake their hand or maybe even hug them, they’d still be existing somewhere else, on a different plane from ours, only ever so slightly.
But from The Dude to Walter Sobchak, Donny, Maude, Bunny, and Jesus Quintana to Big Lebowski himself and even his assistant, Brandt, all the characters who populate the world of TBL are so finely etched that they become both folklore and a part of your life at once. The extraordinary dialogue the Coens imbue them with certainly helps in rendering these characters immortal in one of the most endlessly quotable comedy capers you’ll ever watch.
The Big Lebowski is a masterclass in angular, rebellious writing. You can count along as the Coens poke smiley-shaped holes into the traditional structure of a Hollywood film. This is a film where the inciting incident occurs when a hooligan ‘pees on the Dude’s rug’. Its protagonist’s passivity is now so legendary it has spawned an entire religion called Dudeism around it. For The Dude would rather not be an active agent, neither in the film’s narrative nor in real life. Instead, he is more than content whiling away his time with friends at the bowling alley or tripping to whale music high on weed. The agency comes in the guise of John Goodman’s Sobchak, a Vietnam obsessed self-proclaimed war veteran who, more often than not, is the cause of The Dude’s troubles. If you fail to smell a trenchant political statement here, well, don’t fret, because the Coens only really want you to enjoy the ride.
At its heart, The Big Lebowski remains an insanely fun film bolstered by a memorable soundtrack to accompany Carter Burwell’s characteristically great score. The directors have often remarked about how the characters have distinct musical signatures. From Creedence Clearwater Revival to underscore the Dude’s laidback persona to the Nihilists defined by German techno pop, musical cues allow the Coens to delineate their characters all the more finely. If you’ve seen the Jesus Quintana bowling sequence underscored by the now legendary Latino rendition of 'Hotel California' by The Gypsy Kings, you understand how inseparable music is from the film’s characters. Jesus Quintana doesn’t show up for more than two minutes on screen during the film’s runtime. But John Turturro’s cameo has acquired such cult status over the years that he’s chosen to write, direct and act as Quintana in a spin-off film called Going Places that is currently filming. If that isn’t testament enough to the Coens’ gargantuan gift for building character, perhaps nothing is.
Twenty years on, it still seems difficult to separate Jeff Bridges from the Dude while watching him in films, despite his great talent — and an Academy award — as an actor. Lebowski Fest, an annual festival dedicated to the film, takes place in multiple cities across the US, while London mounts The Dude Abides, its own TBL inspired festival, every year. Personally, I find myself talking in Dudespeak whenever I meet a fellow TBL fan, punctuating our conversation with heavy doses of dialogue from the film. And yes, most significantly, I continue to watch it again and again, sometimes alone, often with different sets of people — some Lebowski regulars, some not — exploding into laughter every single time, with none of the jokes ever growing remotely stale.
The Big Lebowski didn’t quite set the cash registers singing when it came out. The Coens would go on to taste considerable critical and commercial success with the films that followed. Their gift for creating great characters would continue unabated, giving us, for instance, the terrifying phantom of Anton Chigurh, and them the Best Director Oscar. They continue to chronicle America with their singular vision to this day. But among the crests and troughs of their work, The Big Lebowski leaps about like a glittery, dancing fish right out of The Dude’s surreal dreams.
Strange and elusive, yet fascinatingly familiar, the film continues to invite introspection on what it’s really about. Is it an analogy for the cesspool that’s the country, an exploration of the competing values that seemed to define an era, a mystery where the plot doesn’t really matter, or maybe all these at once? Perhaps we are simply better off heeding The Stranger’s advice. For even if Big Lebowski turns out to be right, the bums do lose and their revolution is well and truly over, we can take heart in the fact that there are still Dudes around who didn’t set out to win in the first place; who, as Sam Elliott assures us, are “taking it easy for the rest of us”. And as long as the Coens are around, they’ll have someone to tell their stories.
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