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Looking Back on 20 Years of ‘The Big Lebowski’

'Big Lebowski' still
"The Big Lebowski" celebrates 20 years since its initial release.

Although it received little critical or popular acclaim upon its release in 1998, “The Big Lebowski,” one of the Coen brothers’ most iconic films—much like how its beloved antihero, a self-described “deadbeat, a loser, someone the square community won’t give a shit about”—“abides.”

A stoner comedy (very) loosely based on the film noir “The Big Sleep,” “The Big Lebowski” simultaneously occupies several conventionally incongruous modes and genres, while bringing together a cast of characters so eclectic that they seem to belong in different movies. Its plot, which mirrors that of “The Big Sleep” in its convolutedness, has served as a point of contention for certain critics. Even the soundtrack, from Bob Dylan to Mozart (NOT the Eagles), appears to be in disarray. Yet in spite—or perhaps because—of all these apparent contradictions, which have inspired an equally diverse reception in the two decades since its release, the film’s popularity seems destined to continue to increase with the complication of each passing year.

Perhaps, as “Lebowski” fanatic Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine argues, “The Big Lebowski” seems to improve with every viewing because, not in spite, of its contradictory features. Indeed, once you no longer have to keep track of the plot in order to follow along, you begin to notice more and more of its brilliant details—the comedy of politically correct word choice, for instance, as the brilliant John Goodman’s Walter corrects the Dude on his use of the word “Chinaman” (“Also, Dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature, uh… Asian-American. Please”). He subsequently uses it himself a few lines later (“THE CHINAMAN IS NOT THE ISSUE, DUDE”), after which the word is picked up by the billionaire (“Big”) Jeffrey Lebowski. But why stop there? The joke is refracted in the Dude’s later, passing self-correction, as he refers to his signature beverage, a White Russian, as a “Caucasian.”

The film also gets better and better when regarded from the perspective provided by the Coen Brothers’ later movies, which retrospectively suggest new possible interpretations, as if the Brothers were teaching us to “read.” Considered with respect to their films’ immersion not only in classic film genres but in Classical and Old Testament characters and mythologies, a whole new range of possible allegorical interpretations becomes available. (Here I join the ranks of medievalist Andrew Rabin, who sees the saga of the Dude as an adaptation of the quest for the Holy Grail, the aforementioned Chait, who by 2013 decided the movie was best understood as an allegory for the fiscal cliff, and any viewer who hears Odysseus in George Clooney’s smooth-talking escaped con, Orpheus in Oscar Isaacs’ lament-filled folksinger, or Job in Michael Stuhlbarg’s Midwestern physics professor hoping for tenure.) Considered in light of these newer films, John Goodman, whose towering, glass-eyed thug is the perfect Polyphemus in “O Brother Where Art Thou” seems to be the Ajax to the Dude’s self-sidelining Achilles (the “rug” that “pulled the whole room together,” his Achilles heel…?) in “The Big Lebowski.”

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Or maybe the movie refuses to become dated because its setting in time is complicated by anachronisms. Although the Dude is described as “the man for his time and place,” and the movie, like its hero, is firmly located in 1990s Los Angeles, as Christopher Orr notes, the film is bizarrely involved with the past: its music is largely from the ’60s and ’70s, one of its main characters won’t stop talking about Vietnam, its bowling alleys are evocative of the ’50s, and the narrator, played by Sam Elliot, belongs in a golden-age Western from the first half of the twentieth century. In fact, very little in the movie is as it seems to be. Almost every character is revealed to be the opposite of what they initially appear: Walter, the war vet who doesn’t “roll on shabbos,” is a Polish Catholic still enamored with his Jewish ex-wife, the supposedly self-made billionaire “Big Lebowski” owes his success and fortune to his daughter and his former wife, and his current wife, the porn-star “Bunny,” is in fact a farmgirl from Minnesota.

Maybe, finally, “The Big Lebowski” at 20 is both a cult hit and cinematic classic because its craziness never ceases to surprise us: Like the Dude snared by a case of mistaken identity, we can never quite get to the bottom of it, or reinstate the “rug that pulls it all together” again.

—Staff writer Chloe A. Brooks can be reached at chloe.brooks@thecrimson.com.

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