This is What Happens When You Meet a Stranger in the Alps
If Fargo is generally perceived to be the Coens’ best movie, The Big Lebowski is where they lost some people. It’s often pointed to as an example of how Coen Brothers movies are made largely for a white male audience, and that’s not an unreasonable accusation. The two female characters in it (though that’s still one more than most of their films up to this point) fit neatly into separate but equally negative stereotypes, Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid) the hypersexual blonde trophy wife, and Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) the humorless feminist. Many of hero Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski’s (Jeff Bridges) qualities -- slovenliness, a dedication to passive mediocrity -- would render a female character grotesque, but in a male character are seen as almost aspirational. Numerous books have been written about the “philosophy” behind The Big Lebowski, a “what, me worry?” attitude towards whatever life brings you.
The joke, of course, is that the Dude should be concerned about what happens to him. Thanks to a case of mistaken identity (because who would think there would be more than one Jeff Lebowski in the same town?), he’s drawn into an increasingly complicated kidnapping plot in which absolutely nothing is at it seems. He runs into one potentially dangerous situation after another, usually through no fault of his own, but greets almost all of it with a “what can you do, man, that’s life” shrug. It’s almost enviable, really, but you still want to shake him and demand that he maybe try reacting to something like an actual person.
The thing is, despite his carefully cultivated apathy, the Dude remains a likable guy. He’s affable, he desires peace, and he does care, a little bit at least -- this whole thing starts because thugs broke into his house and soiled his rug, perhaps the nicest thing he owns. He’s not angry so much as hurt and puzzled. What did he do to deserve strangers pissing on his rug? He was just minding his own business. It’s suggested that the Dude, an aging hippie, once cared very much about things, but withdrew into himself and his bedraggled little life as an act of self-preservation. In an era of “outrage fatigue,” this is a tempting solution to relentless bad news and a less than hopeful future. None of it matters, we’re all gonna die someday (perhaps sooner than we think), what’s the point in worrying? It’s a useless waste of psychic energy.
And anyhow, the danger of caring too much can be seen in the Dude’s friend, Walter (John Goodman), a Vietnam veteran and a sentient ball of rage. He and the Dude are two sides of the same coin, both of them children of the sixties now deep into middle-age in a world that has become unfamiliar and hostile to them. Whereas the Dude is so laid back he’s about to fall over, Walter treats everything with outsized anger, even going so far as to pull a gun during an argument over scoring at a bowling alley. It’s funny and yet not, particularly if you’ve ever had to deal with someone with similar anger issues in real life. That he’s become something of a fan favorite is, while puzzling, also not terribly surprising, and, similar to how some fans of Fight Club either failed to recognize or ignored that it’s a satire of toxic masculinity, all you can do is shrug and think “Sure, I guess.” Much like the Dude would, I suppose.
In typical elliptical Coen Brothers fashion, they’ve stated that The Big Lebowski isn’t really “about” anything. The plot, very loosely inspired by The Big Sleep, is incidental, and ultimately results in nothing, except to reveal that the other Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston) is lying about being a wealthy man. It’s his daughter, Maude, who controls the money, making her the actual Big Lebowski. The Dude ultimately becomes part of that legacy, when Maude chooses him to father her child. It may seem at first blush a strange choice on her part, but perhaps she can see what the audience sees in the Dude, a core, guileless humanity. Perhaps her dour, serious nature and his laissez-faire outlook on life will result in something close to a perfect human being.
We don’t know, because, thankfully, no one has made a sequel to The Big Lebowski in which a now collecting Social Security age Dude must contend with a college-age child. There’s been talk of a sequel involving Jesus Quintana, the Dude’s memorably sleazy bowling rival played by John Turturro, that seems unlikely to ever see completion, and that’s a good thing. The Big Lebowski is a movie that knowingly plays in stereotypes, and none of those stereotypes have aged well, with the possible exception of the Dude himself. Even then, one wonders how he would greet the world as it is today, and how quirky and amusing his “that’s not my problem, man” attitude would come off now. The Dude is a man of his time, and that time is 1998, so let’s leave him there, abiding, in a world that’s a little less strange, and a lot less terrifying.