Cult Column: The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Big Lebowski is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary year with a re-release in cinemas. For this dark comedy cult classic, one of the narrator’s first statements remains just as pertinent in summarising its plot as it did in 1998: “There was a lot about the Dude that didn’t make sense to me”.

The Coen brothers’ film, following the life of Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski, opens with the unemployed ex-activist buying milk for his White Russian cocktails in his signature dressing gown. Still within the first five minutes, an ambush follows at his home resulting in his head being shoved down a toilet and a man urinating on his rug. This opening, and indeed the rest of the film, remains as bizarre, disjointed and yet as oddly endearing as ever, even 20 years on.

Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is a simple character, enjoying bowling, smoking pot and those ever-present strong White Russian cocktails. When he is mistaken for Jeffrey Lebowski whose wife (Bunny, depicted by Tara Reid) is in heavy debt and is subsequently kidnapped for ransom, his life is thrown into complete turmoil. A series of disjointed and farcical events follow him and his constantly angry sidekick Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) as they attempt to navigate their way through the increasingly complex hostage situation and win their bowling games.

Undeniably the plot does remain unnervingly bizarre, yet it is easy to understand why the (originally poorly received) film has become such a cult classic thanks largely to its eclectic blend of characters. Whilst ‘The Dude’ remains a calm and often spaced out character, those around him become increasingly manic and garish. They are either angry (with Walter ending up physically biting someone’s ear off), nymphomaniacal (with the uncomfortable scene involving Bunny painting her toe nails), or incredibly uptight (with Philip Seymour-Hoffman’s nervous portrayal of Brandt).

Whilst the fragmented scenes and jumping around of the plot may seem slightly dated, when placed with the characters it actually still works strangely well. Considering the intoxicated state of ‘The Dude’ in much of the film, the blackout scenes have a kind of surreal ‘first-person point of view’ effect similar to that seen in other films depicting a life riddled by drugs and alcohol such as Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996).

The film and its characters may seem surreal but the way in which they are filmed is a clever representation of what life would actually look like to someone in the state ‘The Dude’ finds himself for much of the movie. While he can’t help but remain weirdly calm, things around him spiral with no sign of him reacting rationally.

It is undeniable that aspects of the film have lost their sheen, parts seem a little aged and some of the slurs are difficult to ignore (not least the Julianne Moore scenes, which are still odd and a little uncomfortable) in the culture we live in today. However, the culture The Big Lebowski attracts and represents has not changed at all. Perhaps the fact it now seems even more ‘rough around the edges’ is what makes its appeal so great. While chaos and change surrounds Jeff in his jelly shoes and unruly hair, “The Dude abides” and the cult following remains unchanged.

Image: FilmGrabber via FilmGrab. 

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