Jeffrey Lebowski is a Sixties throwback who prefers people to call him The Dude and ambles around Malibu in shorts and shades drinking White Russians while smoking a joint. He’s not the only Jeffrey Lebowski in town – there’s a millionaire of the same name who lives nearby. One day, people break into The Dude’s flat looking for money owed to them by his namesake’s trophy wife. When they realise they have the wrong Lebowski, they piss on his carpet.
The Dude approaches the Big Lebowski to demand compensation or a new carpet. Instead he gets a job as a go-between with people who have apparently kidnapped the Trophy Wife and sent a ransom letter. Spurred on by Walter, his Polish-Catholic bowling partner, who converted to Judaism for his ex-wife and never got around to converting back, The Dude decides to double cross the kidnappers.
I’ll spare you the rest of the plot. Partly because this is The Big Lebowski, and if you haven’t seen it already, what have you been doing with your life? And partly because this is not a film where plot plays a particularly important role.
As the film develops we encounter a briefcase of dirty underwear, a severed toe with green nail polish, a group of German nihilists who released one album under the name Autobahn, a lascivious Latino bowler who Walter claims is a paedophile, a man in an iron lung, a producer of pornographic films, a private detective in a VW beetle and an untimely death. Apart from the death, none of them is really important to the plot.
We also watch The Dude experience fever dreams – or rather being hit on the head or slipped a Mickey dreams – where he follows the path of a bowling ball through female dancers’ legs and takes his bowling shoes from Saddam Hussein. These are great set pieces, played to relatively unknown music, but after we see the show, it is never mentioned again.
Let’s put it like this. There is also a scene with the Big Lebowski’s daughter, naked on a trapeze as she throws paint at a canvas like Jackson Pollock. This scene is a good metaphor for the film as a whole. Colourful scenes are thrown onto the screen. Some of them look good. Others don’t really work at all, but they are so fleeting that we’re already onto the next scene before we have much chance to think about them.
I’m not sure that The Big Lebowski would work at all if there wasn’t some stabilising presence to hold it all together. And this presence is provided in spades by Jeff Bridges as The Dude. He was already a famous enough actor when the film was released, but this is the role which secured himself a place in film history, and as the face of a thousand memes.
As The Dude ambles through life, it sort of make sense that he goes from one strange scene to another with there not being much meaningful logic linking them. If you need to find some structure in all this, then maybe you need another White Russian or a toke on this joint. Life doesn’t need to make sense to The Dude, so why should it matter to us? The film is an incoherent mess and all the better for it.
And yet this also accounts for the point where I think that the film is at its weakest. It is pointedly set at the beginning of the Gulf War. It is not just the cameo from Saddam Hussein, there are continuous news reports about the war in the background. And Walter, the loose cannon Vietnam Vet with PTSD, takes part of his script from George Bush (for example, when he insists they draw a line in the sand).
So which is it to be? Do the directors, the Coen Brothers, want to emulate their Nihilist characters, and say that plot and structure is meaningless? Or is Walter somehow exemplary? (I must say, watching Walter’s dogmatic certainty irrespective of any evidence touched a nerve on the day that neo-Nazis and other marched through Berlin against the “Coronavirus conspiracy”).
Ultimately, I think that by making the film so wonderfully silly, the Coens do undermine any of the serious points which they may have been trying to make. And this means that The Big Lebowski is not a film to think about much. But it is one that can be experienced and enjoyed for what it is.