American films

The Big Lebowski, perhaps the greatest stoner movie of all time, celebrates 20 years of dudeness

It received no Oscar recognition and pretty lukewarm reviews, but The Big Lebowski endures as a cultural phenomenon and is celebrating its 20th anniversary across the US throughout the year. But what about that sequel?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 May, 2018, 7:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 May, 2018, 7:02am

Twenty years ago, a bathrobe-wearing stoner and his two buddies entrenched themselves in the public consciousness with a strange little movie about bowling, White Russians and a ruined rug.

Ethan and Joel Coen’s idiosyncratic, hopelessly complex The Big Lebowski distilled the unfussy, slacker spirit of 1990s Los Angeles into a Raymond Chandleresque crime caper.

It received no Oscar recognition and pretty lukewarm reviews for its Byzantine plot, which the Coens themselves admitted never really mattered. But it has proved to have immense staying power.

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Today it is nothing less than a cultural phenomenon, with its own religion, Dudeism, boasting 450,000 “ordained priests”.

Every year, bathrobe-clad fans gather at the annual Lebowski Fest, which comes to Los Angeles in two weeks, to celebrate Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, played by Jeff Bridges when he could still get away with board shorts.

“I’m so proud of being part of this movie. It’s just a good movie, a really good movie,” the 68-year-old Oscar winner said at a recent screening in Hollywood, hosted by Turner Classic Movies.

The Dude, a drama-averse, unemployed slacker with a penchant for vodka with Kahlua and cream, provides the drama as he embarks on a quest to replace his beloved rug, destroyed in a twisted case of mistaken identity.

Along for the ride are John Goodman’s loose-cannon Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak and Steve Buscemi’s virtually mute sidekick Donny.

Despite eventually topping Rolling Stone’s list of “10 Best Stoner Movies of All Time”, The Big Lebowski was neither a critical nor commercial hit on its release.

David Denby, of New York magazine, called it an “off-kilter thriller with a sad-sack hero” while for Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, the story was “disjointed, incoherent and even irritating”.

The most scathing critics have largely recanted in the intervening years, recognising that they were too quick to dismiss a film with lines so quotable that many entered the lexicon.

“The Dude abides,” said by an insouciant Bridges as his way of rolling with the punches, is perhaps the most frequently quoted, although the character’s introductory spiel is just as delicious.

“I’m the Dude, so that’s what you call me,” he insists. “That or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.”

These guys, the Coen brothers, are masters. They make it look easy
Jeff Bridges

Bridges said that the only improvised line in the film was The Dude referring to his almost identically named foe Jeff “The Big” Lebowski as “human paraquat” (paraquat is a toxic herbicide), while every “man” and “dude” his hippy character utters was meticulously planned.

“That’s one of the great things about the Coen brothers – it seems like it’s happening in the moment but that’s good writing, really,” Bridges said.

“As actors, we all realised that and said, ‘We’ve got to get these lyrics down,’ like it was a song we were singing.”

The Big Lebowski was released in March 1998, although the 20th anniversary celebrations are taking place throughout this year, including screenings in 600 US theatres in August.

Bridges, a youthful 48 when the film came out, has been asked in countless interviews if he would be interested in doing a sequel.

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John Turturro, who plays the charmless, menacing Jesus Quintana in the film, is currently making a spin-off called Going Places based on the 1974 French comedy Les Valseuses but starring his Lebowski character. But he didn’t cast Bridges, who told AFP in October last year he would jump at the chance to be in a genuine, Coen-made sequel.

“I am so proud of that movie and proud to have been a part of it,” Bridges said. “These guys, the Coen brothers, are masters. They make it look easy.”