The Big Lebowski (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1998) is a ramblin’, complex, ambitious “who-dun-it?” story, in which the answer is ultimately revealed as: nobody. Nobody dun did it. Like the Nihilists in this movie, the plot essentially amounts to nothing. In this Hitchcockian sort of way, the entire plot is merely an excuse to experiment with all of these outrageous characters, most notably, of course, is The Dude, played awesomely by Jeff Bridges. And while The Big Lebowski feels like a convoluted, plot-heavy film— with “lots of ins, lots of outs”— it’s actually more akin to an intimately detailed character study.
That character, The Dude, closely resembles the tumbling tumbleweed shown in the opening prelude, as he is so easily blown from one escalating plot point to the next, with each subsequent episode mounting in absurdity, containing more outlandish characters, and displaying an increased amount of preposterous visuals. This tumbling tumbleweed of an apathetic character is exemplified in his own motto: “fuck it,” as well as the place in which the story takes place— Los Angeles. The Dude is Los Angeles and Los Angeles is The Dude. What’s most bitingly ironic about this lazy, pacified characterization is that the entire crux of the story depends on The Dude reacting to the inciting incident in a way that defies his very own ethos.
In other words, because of the persuasive abilities of his outspoken friend Walter, The Dude breaks with his usual pacified mentality, and decides to take a stand against what he perceives to be unfair, unchecked aggression. After all, they peed on his fucking rug! Adding to this irony, of course, are all of the disastrous, unintended consequences of taking said action, which could have been avoided if The Dude were only to stick to his original “fuck it” motto. All’s he had to do was let it be, and cope with a pee-stained rug.
But alas, that is not what happened, and I get the feeling— based on the movie’s popularity and cult following— that the story could have been just about anything, and what makes this material work are the supremely detailed characterizations of it’s many zany characters. I mean, just take John Turturro’s “Jesus” character, for example. This character is totally ludicrous, and is entirely irrelevant to the actual plot of the story. He doesn’t push the story forward; instead, like so many other moments in The Big Lebowski, he is simply a digression. Even so, because the details are as specific and peculiar as they are, and because the casting and performances are so spot-on, these moments and characters not only work, but they end up being some of the most effective, memorable, entertaining parts of the entire film. Speaking of memorable, the screenplay penned by the Coen’s is so smart, and is full of so many quotable lines of dialogue you will need to drink a spiked “White Russian” just to get them out of your head (not that you would want to).
But putting aside all of the kooky madness The Big Lebowski has to offer, what ends up rising to the top is an hallucinatory morality tale about power, perceived power, and using that power for leverage. What’s interesting about this dynamic, particularly the way it is framed in this movie, is that the perceived power— whether the source is money, sex, or violence— is merely that: a perceived power. An illusion. Its only power if the so-called “lesser” person agrees to give it power. By feeding it. And I get the impression that the Coen’s are suggesting that meeting an aggressive act with an aggressive act is what feeds it. Or, like I mentioned earlier, The Dude’s troubles could all have been avoided if only he were to ABIDE by his original pacifist worldview and life-engrossing motto: “Fuck it, let’s go bowling.”