[18 September 2008]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
If, between sips of White Russians, you finally break down the The Big Lebowski into its most basic components, you get two things: a wry L.A. noir parody that is as funny as it is volatile, and—surprisingly—a well-developed mediation on what a Zen existence truly means.
It certainly comes across as a strange dichotomy, but working in the realm of opposites is what the Coen Brothers do best. The dynamic duo always seem to trade off between stark dramas and delightfully absurd comedies, always shying away from the limelight of any year’s impending award season to focus on what they do best: making movies.
The timing of The Big Lebowski: 10th Anniversary Edition DVD is rather precise: for one, it’s a defiant celebration of art over commerce, as the original theatrical release of Lebowski was a critical and commercial disaster, the film only developing its rabid cult audience in the years that followed, turning this rowdy, bawdy stoner flick into something vaguely iconic.
Secondly, this DVD release is meant to coincide with the theatrical release of yet another Coen comedy that’s (surprise, surprise) peppered with a slew of lovable idiots that find themselves in a somewhat impossible situation: 2008’s Burn After Reading (the red band trailer of which opens this DVD). Indeed, anytime the Coen’s wind up wandering towards critical favor (Blood Simple, Barton Fink, Fargo), they will immediately follow up that film with a comedy that tests the very limits of cinematic absurdism (as evidenced by the releases of Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, and The Big Lebowski, respectively).
Burn After Reading follows that same pattern, tailing the pitch-black Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country For Old Men by less than a year. However, as ambitious as the latest batch of Coen laugh-fests are, it is doubtful that they will wind up defining a generation of youth so vividly as Lebowski has.
The movie’s plot, somehow, is surprisingly minimal. Yes, there are kidnapping threats, conspiracies, severed toes, and—yes—carnivorous ferrets (here identified as a marmot), but Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (a never-better Jeff Bridges) does not willingly participate in any of these events. All of the plot instead comes to him, starting with a case of mistaken identity in which—arriving home from buying a quart of milk with a 69 cent check—the Dude is drowned in his toilet by two roughnecks demanding money.
Of course, they think they’re at the house of the other Jeff Lebowski, the paraplegic millionaire with the trophy wife who has gone about spending money all over town, leaving thousands of dollars in debt in her wake. The Dude doesn’t even seem to mind the drowning: he only gets upset when one of the toughs winds up urinating on his rug, a rug which—of course—tied the room together.
The Big Lebowski—in its constant mish-mashing of genres—doesn’t take long before it moves into buddy-comedy territory, as the Dude is eternally matched up with Walter (John Goodman), his hot-tempered Vietnam-veteran buddy who appears to be the Dude’s polar opposite: hot-tempered, antagonistic, and an eternal believer in absolute fairness (as exhibited by his pulling a gun on a fellow bowling-league player for stepping over the line). Walter convinces the Dude to go to Jeff Lebowski’s house and ask for reparations for his rug.
Though laughed out of the “Big Lebowski’s” estate, it’s not long before the Dude is then brought back in to help out in the recent kidnapping of wife Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), soon setting off the cataclysmic chain of events that leads the Dude into the realm of sadistic German rock stars, nude feminist painters (Julianne Moore), poorly conceived interpretive dances, and a porno movie called, ahem, Logjammin’.
The movie itself is rife with noir conventions, but the comedy stems from the fact that it’s the Dude who is involved, solving (or not solving) these larger-than-life mysteries. When the tear-struck Jeff Lebowski is showing the Dude the high-priced ransom note for Bunny’s return, the Dude can only muster the word “bummer” before asking if it’s OK to light a roach. The Dude doesn’t see the huge acts of self-martyrdom that are being displayed around him; he instead drifts by on a devil-may-care attitude that’s half-slacker and half-idealist.
It’s Walter, meanwhile, who takes everything too seriously, not thinking much of the kidnapping case at all because the Dude said that Bunny “might” have kidnapped herself, leading Walter to believe that, without a doubt, she had. In an attempt to follow the millions of dollars that were lost in horribly misguided drop-off with the kidnappers, the Dude and Walter wind up arriving at the house of an indifferent teenage boy in an L.A. suburb whose lack of dialogue makes Walter jump to the conclusion that the jet-red sports car out front is his, Walter soon decimating the vehicle to pieces ... at least until the car’s real owner shows up.
The Dude’s own car starts off looking used and eventually ends up on fire, all symbolizing the emotional bruising and battering that the Dude (or at least his Chandler/Marlow fill-in) should be experiencing, but, really, the Dude never changes during the course of the movie, even after losing a close friend. His final line of the movie is simply “the Dude abides”, to which cowboy narrator Sam Elliot observes that those should truly be words of comfort for the rest of us.
In its own weird way, the Dude has symbolized an ideal existence: free of work, worries, and—most importantly—negativism. Sure, the Dude smokes weed, drinks excessive amounts of alcohol, and engages in casual sex when the opportunity strikes, but his life is not defined by his desires: there are merely a part of him. If the movie were to come back to the Dude some 10 years down the line, it is doubtful that his manner of living will have changed at all.
In the featurettes included on Disc One of the 10th Anniversary Edition, Bridges notes how a friend of his has informed him that Zen Buddhists have the highest respect for the character of the Dude, as the Dude is truly a Zen being, free from suffering. Many other talking heads—both in the new featurettes and during an excerpt from the 2008 Lebowski-Fest documentary The Achievers—note how everyone wants to be the Dude. Somewhere along the way, the Dude stopped being a character and became a way of life, something that few movies could ever, ever hope to achieve.
It’s a little disappointing, then, that the bonus features on this DVD set are merely passable. Some have been used before (“The Making of The Big Lebowksi” featurette on Disc Two was made around the time of the film’s initial release), and some are cute but ultimately pointless (the “interactive map” of filming locations is great for planning a Lebowski-themed roadtrip, but little else). The look of how the dream sequences were filmed is also remarkably short and uninteresting.
The new featurettes, however, are actually the strongest pieces to be found here. There’s the new “Introduction” to the film (which is almost as funny as the film itself) and the new featurettes “The Dude’s Life” and “The Dude Abides: The Big Lebowski Ten Years Later”. Both of these feature new interviews with the cast and crew, some of which is a bit hyperbolic (Julianne Moore’s insistence that Bridges should’ve won an Oscar for his work here), but most of which is humbly appreciative of the second life that Lebowski has taken on. Bridges, however, is the most vivid during these segments, happily retelling dozens of stories about the film and its after-effects, all while radiating an infectious warmth towards this career-making flick and the fans that love it.
Of course, it’s easy to overlook the incredible performances of big actors in bit parts, ranging from John Turturro’s iconic Jesus to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s perfectly nerdy assistant to the Big Lebowski (and let’s not forget Flea, of course), and, yes, you can still find small trivial facets in the flick’s every frame (like how screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is in the audience during the interpretive dance sequence), but, really, these are all minor joys to a much greater whole: a generation-defining comedy about peace and brotherhood, all set in a world made of backstabbers, liars, and semi-professional bowling leagues. Ten years later, the Dude hasn’t aged a single day—and that’s something we can all take comfort in.