Original US release date: March 6, 1998
Production budget: $15,000,000
Worldwide gross: $17,451,873
Okay, I’ll admit it: this is my first time seeing this movie. Honestly, it just never appealed to me. I was under the impression that the film was a litany of drug humor, which is something that has never struck a chord for me, as it’s easy and essentially a form of pandering that lacks any true semblance of wit or creativity. Over the years, however, I’ve attained a strong fondness for Jeff Bridges, so I figured it was about time to give this one a chance and see if it lived up to the long-standing hype. The Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, are hit-and-miss for me (and only Joel receives a directing credit with both he and Ethan being credited ad co-writers), but I’d been stubborn long enough; it was time for me to finally watch The Big Lebowski.
For those like me who haven’t seen the film, The Big Lebowski tells the tale of the Dude (real name Jeff Lebowski, played by Bridges) as he gets mistaken for a millionaire with the same name (David Huddleston). When the millionaire’s daughter (Tara Reid) is kidnapped and held for ransom, the Dude recruits his bowling buddies (John Goodman and Steve Buscemi) to help him find her and resolve his role in the situation.
I’m happy to say that my impression that the film was a drug comedy, like some highly-regarded progenitor to Superbad, was way off base. Yes, the Dude does drugs, but in no way does this permeate the entire film, neither through the humor nor the narrative. Surprisingly, the drug references are rather sparse and the Coen brothers instead use dialogue and situational humor to earn their laughs, never relying on the cheap jokes and visual gags that drug humor so easily provides. There’s a little bit of that (including a highly entertaining dance/dream sequence), but most of the comedy is rooted in the script and the performances. And it’s genuinely funny.
Jeff Bridges turns in a casually endearing performance as the Dude. The Dude is surprisingly likeable and even more surprisingly level-headed. He’s a do-nothing slacker, for sure. And, being perpetually unemployed, it’s not entirely clear how he pays for . . . well . . . anything at all, really. So, he isn’t contributing to society in any meaningful way. But it’s clear that he could. He’s reasonably intelligent and genuinely cares for other people. It’s difficult to dislike him, even if he seemingly mooches off of society. Bridges’s performance only compounds the issue as he injects so much sincerity into the Dude’s every line of dialogue and action that one can’t help but feel drawn to him.
In discovering the character of the Dude, I also discovered that, rather than being the druggie comedy I expected, The Big Lebowski is actually a fish-out-of-water crime caper. The Dude doesn’t really belong anywhere. Sure, he’s comfortable with his bowling friends, but – outside of that one particular hobby – neither of those guys are very much like the Dude, at all. Buscemi’s Dave is a well-meaning, weak-kneed putz who’s lucky to have found anyone who will spend time with him in any capacity, at all. And Goodman’s overbearing Walter puts all of his energy into himself while positing a love for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (reminding me of half of my current Facebook feed, in the process).
And if the Dude doesn’t really fit in with his friends, he’s even more displaced once he gets wrapped up with multimillionaires and career criminals. The Dude wants his life to be as simple and uneventful as possible. This film is what happens when he is forced to live a life that is the very antithesis of simple and uneventful. Yet, even though these adventures have been thrust upon him against his own will and doing, when he sees that other people are in danger, he never hesitates to try to help. At the same time, he refuses to allow these societal bigwigs and bullies to steamroll him. This duality is the heart of the character and why he has resonated with so many people for almost two decades.
So, I get it, now. I understand why people still associate Jeff Bridges with this character and this film. I understand why people still talk about the film and still make references to it in casual conversation or in other forms of media. While, for me personally, it doesn’t stand out as any sort of an all-time favorite, I can absolutely see why it does for so many others and I’m glad I finally took the time to check it out. It’s simply not always the best idea to trust our own impressions of a film, especially when so many others love it. Sadly, this is another in a long line of films that failed at the box office despite it’s superior quality. If only America could learn a lesson and start supporting these types of movies more often. Still, I suppose a post-theatrical-run cult following is better than nothing. So, if you are like I was and you haven’t checked out The Big Lebowski, follow my lead and give it at least one viewing.
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