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We’re really glad that we watched ‘The Big Lebowski’ a second time
“New s*** has come to light!”
We’ll admit that when we first watched The Big Lebowski, we didn’t know what the hell it was. It has disparate elements from different genres tossed together, all bound by a protagonist that didn’t seem to care about anything other than bowling. The 1998 film from Joel and Ethan Coen was intriguing, but we didn’t immediately love it as much as the Coen films that came before it.
When we watched it a second time, everything changed. Thank the cowboy that we did that. For us, Lebowski is one of the all-time great “second watch” movies. It’s not that way for everyone, many audiences get the movie right away. We didn’t, and we’ll admit that. It took a second view, and it was within that second view that everything clicked. The movie is absolutely insane, but there’s a method to the madness. In case you need to revisit it yourself (not that you ever need a reason) it is currently streaming on Peacock.
Realizing that the movie is a spin on the stories of Raymond Chandler is pivotal to enjoying the full brilliance. This isn’t a new take, director Joel Coen has said that this was the original intent. Not only is the movie a play on the hard-boiled detective story, it has a plot that doesn’t matter very much in the end. It doesn’t matter to us, and it doesn't matter to Jeffrey Lebowski, aka The Dude, played to perfection by Jeff Bridges.
Chandler’s The Big Sleep is a direct inspiration, and the title of the movie (aside from relating to two of the movie’s characters) is itself a play on that. The hat-and-trench Philip Marlowe gets hired to solve mysteries; that’s his job. He takes it seriously, as does everyone around him.
The Dude gets somewhat "hired" by multiple people in The Big Lebowski, except he doesn’t take any of it seriously. He doesn’t do anything, things just keep happening to him. He’s caught up in a pointlessly intricate web of lies, and he has almost no agency at all. That’s fine with him. He doesn't really know who or what anyone or anything is. He often repeats idiot phrases that he's overheard on the television with no comprehension of what he's saying.
He gets roped into the drama because of a misunderstanding about his name, but the characters in the movie keep him involved. They seem to think that he’s a detective figure, and an important one. They think that this is a serious Raymond Chandler movie. The Dude doesn’t know who the f*** Raymond Chandler is. All he knows is that they can’t call him during league play.
That’s the other big part of the movie: bowling. It's not subtle, the entire opening credit sequence is a hymn to the Brunswick days of the past. The Dude rolls through life (and the movie) like a big smooth ball, and yeah, he gets both strikes and gutters. It’s all good, he’ll bust out a joint either way. Any scene set in a bowling alley is pure gold, because it will involve The Dude’s best friend, Walter. Played to brilliant and perfect precision by John Goodman, Walter takes the hard-boiled side of the story seriously… way too seriously.
He’s a Vietnam vet who manages to include that detail in any conversation that he’s having. He’s an idiot (and an a**hole, as The Dude tells him at one point) but he thinks that he’s a genius. He involves himself in the mystery unfolding around The Dude, and makes it worse every step. He eventually puts on a suit and grills a kid while holding up crumpled homework that he has placed in a ziplock bag. He's playing the part, and playing it badly. That's when we’ve reached the stuff of legend.
The only thing that Walter takes more seriously than trying to be a hard-boiled Marlowe with a gun fetish is bowling. He takes it so seriously that he brings a gun out during a game. When he’s not doing that, he’s throwing a briefcase of his own underwear out a car window, thinking that he’s a mastermind. We don't think that he ever gets his whites back.
Walter weaves in and out of The Dude’s tale (narrated by the mysterious cowboy Sam Elliot, okay) as The Dude himself keeps getting thrown in and out of cars, beaten up, and making nice with the movie’s version of a femme fatale. Maude Lebowski is one of Julianna Moore’s weirder creations, and her deadpan delivery of the word “vagina” is itself worth watching the movie multiple times. The Dude doesn’t seduce her or even make an attempt; she goes to him. She doesn’t seduce him either, she just lets him know that sex is about to happen.
She's also a player in the dream sequences, something else that the Coens layer in.
On first watch, we definitely laughed. The timing of any scene with The Dude, Walter, and Donnie (Steve Buscemi) could make a statue laugh. When The Dude’s car gets vandalized for the millionth time, the cop who makes fun of a query about “leads” steals the movie for a couple of minutes. Philip Seymour Hoffman and David Huddleston in the back of the limo trying to reason with a sputtering Dude (“New s*** has come to light!”) is another highlight, as is a brief appearance from David Thewlis. His character is so weird that The Dude himself finally asks who he is and why he’s there.
Aside from moments like those, and we’re not proud to admit this... we didn’t get it. We didn’t get what the fuss was about, because this movie has a giant cult following and is a favorite of many. The second time, we saw it as a deconstructed detective story where the “detective” is a slacker who cares more about avenging a rug befouled with urine than a kidnapped rich girl. It was magic.
Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you. It doesn’t matter what the over-the-top stereotypes of the movie throw at him, The Dude abides. He gets frustrated (mostly with Walter) and he hates The Eagles, but he takes his multiple beatdowns in stride. He’s a detective, he’s got to get beaten up! He’ll just fish his sunglasses out of the toilet and keep going.
As oblivious as he is, the real kick is that he cracks the nonsense case early on. He says what he thinks the truth of the kidnapping is, but it’s just a part of his bowling alley rambling. He solves everything a half hour in, tossing it off like it's nothing. So what? It’s his turn, get rolling.
You've probably seen this movie. You very well may love this movie, and nothing that has been written here is new to you. If you have yet to watch it, or you've only seen it once and didn’t like it? Put it on. It’s unlike any other movie from the Coens, which means it’s unlike any other movie from anyone. Joel and Ethan Coen do not miss, and they certainly didn’t miss here. Shocking, we know.
It’s time for another round with The Dude, or Duder, or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. Just don’t interrupt him during league play.
The Big Lebowski is currently streaming on Peacock.