‘The Big Lebowski’ 20 Years Later (Flashback Review)

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The dairy aisle of Ralph’s is empty as Jeffrey Lebowski casually enters searching for milk. Based on his attire… the trip looks to have been spur of the moment. White shirt, shorts, flip flops and a large bath robe. And let us not forget, a pair of black sunglasses. The Dude, as omnipotent narrator Sam Elliot tells us he prefers to be called, examines a few different cartons before he opens one and takes a long whiff. Even Elliot loses his train of thought as we all gaze upon this ever-so bizarre spectacle.

The look on the cashier’s face as she slowly chews her gum echoes the same sentiment while The Dude writes a check for $0.69 with milk residue quite visible in his facial hair. The television that plays in the background catches his attention as George H.W. Bush declares that the (Iraqi) “aggression will not stand” against Kuwait. It’s one of many lines of dialogue this mysterious man lifts from other people to use his very self.

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What then ensues is him quickly making his way through the outdoor common area of his home, likely to avoid his landlord he is behind on rent with. Once entering his apartment, Dude realizes something is possibly amiss, and that fear is confirmed when he is grabbed and pushed headfirst into his toilet by the group he refers to later as the “rug pissers” – Violently demanding to know where the money is.

The Big Lebowski turns twenty years old today, and it’s interesting to think about where it lies two decades later in the Coen brothers canon of films. Staunch supporters of the movie will have it rival or even best even its predecessor Fargo or the later No Country For Old Men. Some might not even have it above Blood Simple or O Brother Where Art Thou? They have one of the most fascinating run of films of any writer/director combination that, honestly, you really can’t go wrong with how you order them.

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Lebowski, though, remains fascinating compared to the others in terms of the film itself and the journey its made from theaters to home video. In its initial release, Lebowski didn’t hit critically or commercially like Fargo did. You can find various reviews from ’98 that criticize the profane dialogue, Dude’s uninspired heroic qualities, and overall needlessly complicated narrative. However, it is quite interesting to see some of the reviewers’ opinions shift after only a few short years. Perhaps it was expectation that put everyone under a critical spell; it’s difficult to say.

The fact is, The Big Lebowski has aged tremendously over time. It has layers of enjoyment from the characters to the dialogue, soundtrack, and just the look of the film in general. There are also a multitude of ways to view this film. One examination is as a parody or take-off on noir films, specifically the likes of Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep). The Dude journeys and encounters many a seedy characters that might or might not be helping him in his travels over what is a fairly absurd mystery. Another examination is looking at the different philosophies or ideologies the characters mention, explain, or simply embody.

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Yet a third that I’ve heard a few times over the years, that’s pretty interesting, is examining the movie and the films as renditions of the real world Persian Gulf conflict going on during the film’s events. (Walter Solbchak is a perfect embodiment of America by the way.)

I can go on and on about the supporting cast. It is sublime and deep, and everyone from Goodman, Buscemi, Moore, Hoffman, and Turturro are shooting lights out from the arc. The cast could easily sub-in as the Golden State Warriors with their team-playing essence and run rampant, like they do while supporting Bridges’ Kevin Durant. There aren’t many movies that give this much to its supporting cast to stand out, all the while never taking away from the central character.

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The roads in discussing The Big Lebowski and its impact/legacy have to run through Bridges’ performance as The Dude. We take it for granted now, but pre-Lebowski roles and even interviews didn’t showcase that side of Jeff Bridges. I never would have thought watching Against All Odds, The Last Picture Show, or Thunderbolt and Lightfoot that the tall, slender, handsome leading man would play lazy and stoned even better later on. Nearly everything he does here is comical – From walking across the room, to mixing a drink, even simply hearing Goodman rant.

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And yet, as he gets worked up from time to time and the movie takes its toll on his easy going lifestyle, he still has these brilliant moments of Zen. It all amounts to the easy to answer question of why we love this character so much. Because we all wish we could be that guy. We all wish to get by in life carefree with interesting friends, an undefined flow of income that doesn’t involve a job, bowling, and the occasional joint in one hand and a White Russian in the other. If only we all could simply abide as effortlessly as he does.

4/5 STARS

By William Renken
william.renken@gmail.com

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