Study Guide

The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski Introduction


Release Year: 1998

Genre: Comedy, Crime

Director: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Writer: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Stars: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore


If you're looking for a crime comedy that manages to tie together a White Russian-drinking slacker, an angry Vietnam vet, purple polyester jumpsuits, bowling, and Julianne Moore in a Viking hat, then The Big Lebowski is for you.

Jeff Bridges plays The Dude, otherwise known as Jeff Lebowski (but you can only call him The Dude), an L.A. stoner/slacker who gets embroiled in a case of mistaken identity so utterly convoluted he has to spend the rest of the film sorting out the good guys from the bad. He gets lots of (unhelpful) help from his buddy, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), a hot-tempered Vietnam vet and avid bowler.

Think stoner film noir, complete with a dark and mysterious mood, a disillusioned (and stoned) male character, and a femme fatale (two, in fact).

Add in some absurdist bowling stoner comedy, and you've got this film's number.

Produced by PolyGram Filmed Entertainment and Working Title Films, The Big Lebowski made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1998, where it met with a big "meh." It hit U.S. theaters in March 1998 and grossed $17 million, which was barely more than its $15 million production budget. That was definitely bad news for directors Joel and Ethan Coen, who were used to plenty of critical praise after making films like Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, and Fargo. Critics found the plot of The Big Lebowksi confusing and the excessive use of profanity a major turnoff. Overall, the film was a box-office flop.

Fast-forward to the year 2000: a film critic attends a midnight screening of The Big Lebowski and notices people in the audience quoting the dialogue to each other. Sure enough, the film had become a cult classic with a massive following. Since then, that fandom has only grown to huge proportions, and The Big Lebowski has won mainstream acceptance.

In 2014, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected for the high honor of being preserved in the National Film Registry. Entertainment Weekly has ranked it as one of the 50 best cult films of all time, it's got an 80 percent "fresh" rating from Rotten Tomatoes, and Empire magazine has ranked both The Dude and Walter among the 100 greatest movie characters of all time. The film has even been nominated for the prestigious Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association, which is like getting to have your Belgian waffles and eat them, too. Righteous stuff.

The Dude abides.

What is The Big Lebowski About and Why Should I Care?

You're probably thinking, "The Big Lebowski sounds like a hilarious comedy that has spawned a cult following of middle-age guys wearing bathrobes, drinking White Russians, and spouting movie quotes. But why does that make it worth studying?"

Why, exactly, does The Dude abide?

That's a great question. As it turns out, The Big Lebowski isn't all sight gags and roach clips. There's some pretty deep stuff happening in there, too. So, if watching the masterful Coen brothers give their take on a Raymond Chandler-type film noir isn't enough to make you pay attention, dig in to some of the other goodies.

War! What Is It Good For?

The story of The Dude's laid-back, pacifist lifestyle is set in 1991, against the backdrop of the first Gulf War, and it's asking some pretty important questions about the benefits and consequences of war. We see a bit about the Gulf War itself (like Prez George H. W. Bush announcing it and Saddam Hussein handing a pair of bowling shoes to the Dude in the famous dream sequence), but we get the most about the aftermath of war in the character of Walter. He's a guy so damaged by his experience in Vietnam that he pops off at the slightest provocation and relates everything that happens in his life to his 'Nam experiences.

The Dude, on the other hand, was a pacifist member of an antiwar group in the Vietnam era, the "Seattle Seven," and he's constantly having to pacify Walter when he's flipping out. We can see what side of the debate the Coens are coming down on.

What's the Good Life?

Oliver Benjamin, the founder of the Church of the Latter-Day Dude (we're serious, more on that later), has a theory about why the film took hold as a cult classic when it initially got such a "meh" from critics and fans. The Internet has helped, sure, but he lays the "credit" at the foot of the September 11 terrorist attack. He told a reporter from The Atlantic magazine:

"The Great Lebowski Re-evaluation gradually took root among the youth counterculture after the goddamn plane crashed into the building—exactly 10 years after the Dude buys a carton of Half & Half in the opening scene of the movie." (Source)

9/11? What does that have to do with The Big Lebowski? Other than the 69-cent check for the Half & Half was dated September 11? Here's what, according to Benjamin:

"No one could really get on board with the idea that this lazy anti-hero, the Dude, might somehow be someone to look up to or emulate," he said. The U.S. economy was in "full-achievement mode," and people had faith in America's financial and political institutions.

But fast-forward a few years—toward "phantasmagoric warfare, heretofore unthinkable institutional corruption, divisive political zealotry and a growing sense that our mythic moral compass is no longer reliable"—and the self-reliant, periphery-dwelling Dude lifestyle became a lot more appealing. "Suddenly it was necessary to crack the case of our received notions of heroism and achievement, and think about replacing them with something far more humane, even 'spiritual,"' Benjamin explained. "The Dude represented an idea of what that might be." (Source)

Translation: the old values didn't hold after 9/11. People started to question what was really important and decided maybe we should all slow down and start living a simpler, more meaningful (and laid-back) life. Suddenly, people could relate to The Dude. He saw what was truly important. Benjamin thought the movie wasn't successful at first because it was just ahead of its time.

Whether you agree with this take (I dig your style, too, man) or not (yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man), it's true that The Dude's lifestyle presents us with a dilemma. He's a stoner/slacker, of course, but he's got integrity. He knows what's important—friends, bowling, being happy with what you've got, being honest. He worries about Bunny's safety. He tries to calm Walter down when he's losing it. He doesn't hurt anybody. All of the "achievers" in the movie are corrupt, greedy, destructive, or ridiculous. They've all sold their souls one way or another.

Far be it for Shmoop to discourage y'all from staying in school or getting a job. And drugs are bad, m'kay? We're not encouraging you to live in your bathrobe, smoking weed in the bathtub.

But The Dude abides.

And maybe The Dude abides because he's not trying to be better, smarter, or richer than anyone else. He's not trying to get drawn into conflicts that don't really involve him. Does The Dude represent the honest, simple, virtuous life? An irresponsible, avoidant, passive one? Is disengagement the sanest response to a crazy world?

There are serious questions lurking behind all the lunacy in the film. Don't let it stop you from enjoying the craziness, though.

The Coens wouldn't want that.

Trivia

The scene where The Dude traces over Jackie Treehorn's notepad is a shot-for-shot recreation of a scene from the Alfred Hitchcock film North by Northwest. We'll call it Dude by Dudewest. (Source)

The show Veronica Mars contains almost the entire The Big Lebowski script. (Source)

Hollywood Star Lanes, where The Dude, Walter, and Donny once bowled, is now a school. We always knew there were lessons to be learned from the film. (Source)

Fans enjoy debating whether or not Larry Sellers stole The Dude's car. (Source)

The word "dude" is used 161 times in the movie. The f-bomb, on the other hand, is used 292 times. (Source)

The Big Lebowski Resources

Websites

Dudeism
Your go-to site for everything about this slow-growing religion.

Lebowski Fest
Everything you need to know about the annual Lebowski Fest.

The Dude's Abode
A forum where you can discuss all things Dude-related.

Get the Tee!
What's a cult film without an awesome shirt? Perfect for wearing when you're doing nothing at Lebowski Fest.

Inquiring Minds Want to Know
Some things are just too important to ignore.

Articles and Interviews

Dudespeak
A guide to some of the more obscure language in the film. In case there's a quiz. See "Quizzes."

"The Coen Brothers: Hollywood Interview"
An interview given by the Coens shortly after The Big Lebowski came out.

"The Dude Survives"
Jeff Bridges on playing The Dude.

"Still Abiding After 15 Years: The Laidback World of Big Lebowski Worship"
An interview with some very dedicated achievers.

Gender Politics in The Big Lebowski
Were the Coens too harsh to Maude?

"50 Things You Probably Didn't Know About The Big Lebowski"
The title says it all.

"The 10 Most Intriguing Supporting Characters in The Big Lebowski"
A fun breakdown of some of the minor characters.

Shut the F**k Up, Donny
Rolling Stone interviewed Steve Buscemi about the lovable loser.

Book or TV Adaptations

I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and What Have You
The ultimate fan guide to the film, including trivia, never-before-seen photos, etc.

Two Gentlemen of Lebowski: A Most Excellent Comedie and Tragical Romance
This book explores the oft-asked question: What if Shakespeare had written The Big Lebowski?

The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski
A book of religious teachings from the founder of the Church of the Latter-Day Dude.

The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans
This is a full-length film about fans who love the movie more than life itself.

Video

The Big Lebowski Cast Reunion Event Q&A
The Q&A the cast participated in at the 2011 Lebowski Fest.

"14 Hidden Jokes and Cryptic Metaphors in The Big Lebowski"
One fan takes achiever-dom way too far.

John Turturro on Playing Jesus in The Big Lebowski
John Turturro talks about his … um … unique character in the movie.

"John Goodman on The Big Lebowski"
John Goodman really loved making The Big Lebowski.

"The Lebowski Fest Abides for Its 13th Year in Louisville"
Achievers doing what they do best.

Audio

"The Coen Bros. on Writing, Lebowski, and Literally Herding Cats"
The Coens do NPR in 2013.

Jeff Bridges and John Fogerty singing "Looking Out My Back Door"
Jeff Bridges performs a song he jammed to as The Dude with the lead singer of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Images

The Big Lebowski as a Children's Book
A Pixar animator's take on a scene from The Big Lebowski.

The Dude's Supper
A very Lebowski Last Supper.

Donny Lives!
A terrifying take on the scattering of Donny's ashes.

Johnie's Legacy
Walter and The Dude share their coffee shop with some friends.