When two thugs mistake Jeff “the dude” Lebowski for the millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski they pee on his rug because his ‘wife’ owes Jackie Treehorn money. But the rug really tied the room together and Jeff takes his gripe to the rich Lebowski, setting in motion a chain of absurd events that culminate in kidnap, extortion and madcap comedy.
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I saw this film in the theatre when it opened and I thought it was wonderful, except that my ex and I were the only people laughing. This experience played out around the country – a few people with frayed sensibilities got the joke but the film did poorly at the box office. Believers can feel vindicated today because it has grown in popularity and achieved a cult status. There are conventions held in its honor -- the dude abides.
The story begins in the desert – our camera follows a tumble weed to a traditional western tune as it skips over a cliff, down into Los Angeles and winds it’s way to the sea – it feels like a cowboy movie, Sam Elliott narrates. It’s jarring then to meet our hero Jeff (Bridges) – a burnt out hippy in a housecoat writing a .67 cent check to pay for a jug of milk to make white Russians. But cowboys were the original anti-heroes and The Cohen’s seem to say this is our rebel hero circa early 90’s, around the time of Gulf War I, fallen on hard times.
Once home a pair of thugs stuff Jeff’s head in a toilet and pee on his beloved rug. They claim his wife owes the pornographer Jackie Treehorn money. Jeff explains they have clearly mistaken him for someone else – the rich Jeffrey Lebowski. The punks leave but the incident leaves a stain and a strain and Jeff’s bowling buddy Walter (Goodman) urges him to take his grievance to the ‘big’ Lebowski (David Huddleston).
“The Dude” meets Lebowski at his mansion. Seemingly a pillar of society, the great man is in a wheel chair, having lost the use of his legs in the Korean War. His trophy wife Bunny has been running up tabs all over town but he sees no connection between that and the fouling of the rug. His advice is to “get a job, sir! Your revolution is over, condolences, Mr. Lebowski! The bums lost! The bums will always lose!” Jeff leaves, but not before conning a rug from the great man’s secretary (Hoffman).
Within a day Bunny Lebowski has been kidnapped. The kidnappers want a million dollars. The big Lebowski hires the dude to act as go between with the kidnappers. But something’s fishy – Jeff thinks maybe she kidnapped herself. Then his new rug is confiscated by Maude, the big Lebowski’s daughter. Maude is an honest but tightly wound artist who paints a far different picture of her father. He has no money, but gets most of his influence from an estate that her deceased mother set up – nor is he the paragon of virtue he would have others believe – it’s quite possible he’s behind the kidnapping. Walter buys into the dude’s suspicions and brings a wringer bag full of soiled underwear and an Uzi sub-machine gun to a money drop. Things go awry and the dude’s car is stolen along with the real money bag. So the dude is on the hook for the million and three different factions are after him.
He’s wise enough with Walters help to see that there may have never been a million – that the satchel was empty and the big Lebowski is scamming the foundation he’s been entrusted to serve.
Several things make this movie work – Huddleston’s performance as “the big” Lebowski is pitch perfect; John Goodman as Walter Sobchak – a Viet-Nam vet with a hair-trigger temper -- has never been better; and Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore and Steve Buscemi and John Turturro and Philip Seymour Hoffman – some of the finer actors anywhere. The writing is original and smart – the Cohen’s take fresh strands of Americana, pull them to the surface, and fashion stories from them. (I can’t recall another movie that is largely set in a bowling alley -- Sobchak’s obsession with Viet-Nam, with unchecked aggression, even as he pulls a gun on a fellow bowler, is hilarious and spot on. These characters seem fresh and real even as you feel they might be drawn straight from the evening news.)
It’s a buddy film – Jeff and Walter and Donny the bowlers vs. the corrupt rich; the pornographers; the German nihilists, who threaten to cut off the dude’s johnson. Maude is good and honest even if she’s a flake -- she asks the dude to sire her child based solely on his disinterest in being a father – the dude gets it. But if bowling was all there was at stake that would be enough. The bowlers for all their faults take life in stride and without malice and with an open heart. Their foes are the serious and the money hungry: and we see what they can do when they get their hands on the wheel. The dude is the rebel anti-hero – a foil to the greedy, a foil to the heartless and a friend to good humour everywhere – we are glad in the end that he is there “taking it easy for all us sinners”.
It may be a stretch to suggest that two comic filmmakers saw through the lie and that their antidote – the dude – was a balance, if not an answer, for all the trouble that came via the Madov’s and the super serious greedsters that brought society to its knees half a year ago – but that’s what I suggest. Just as the world should have taken a vacation in 1914 instead of plunging into war, so should the world have gone bowling ten years ago when this movie was released – at least for a time -- and ignored the will to power and made a few more white Russians and concocted a few less caustic loans on the future.
It’s a very wise and soulful movie in the end; and it has not aged – it’s as funny as ever: the dude abides.