The Big Lebowski


The first time I saw this movie, I didn’t like it much.  For a comedy it wasn’t funny enough, for a mystery it wasn’t satisfying.  There was too much weirdness, not enough punch, couldn’t figure out what any of it meant.  The cowboy, the dream sequences, the dotty peripheral characters, it just didn’t gel for me.

But all Coen movies are worth seeing more than once, so when it came out on video I watched it again.

It still didn’t work for me as a comedy, although it worked better.  It worked better for me as a mystery, but not that much better.  It seemed to me that the movie worked best as a study of an unlikely friendship, between the foggy sixties liberal and the hothead throwback Vietnam vet.  I still couldn’t follow the mystery and of course it doesn’t really matter.  I shrugged and gave up on it.

But, you know, there’s so much going on in it, so many details in it that stick out at weird angles.  And a couple of years later I rented it again.

Suddenly, something clicked.  What does the cowboy say at the beginning?  “Every once in a while, there is a man who is the right man for his time.”  And the characters are constantly talking about how things were in the past, and judging current events based on how they feel about the past.  Round about the moment where the Dude says to Walter “Man, you’re living in the past” and Walter screams “3000 years of tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax, you’re goddamn right I’m living in the past!” and suddenly my hair stood on end, because a whole other layer of meaning snapped into focus.

The Big Lebowski is a movie about how nothing means anything anymore.

The cowboy, the quintessential American icon, is our narrator.  He appears to be a “real” cowboy who has somehow made it out of the mists of history and legend and kept going west until he came to Venice Beach in 1991, at the time of the Gulf War.  He introduces the Dude with profound words of deep meaning, as we watch the Dude shuffle around a 24-hour supermarket and pay for a quart of milk with a check.  Then, even in the midst of his well-worded, carefully-considered, eloquently spoken introduction, the cowboy loses his train of thought.  It’s like he can’t keep up the pretense any more.  Or the 20th century has suddenly caught up with him.  The icon, perhaps the soul, of America is stuck here in the late 20thcentury and he’s looking for something to hold on to.  And here comes the Dude.

The Big Lebowski is, of course, a noir.  And not just a noir, but an LA noir.  The title is even a reference to one of the most famous LA noirs, The Big Sleep.  As we quickly learn, however, the LA of Raymond Chandler, no longer exists.  This LA is filled with bowling alleys, burnouts and punks, none of whom ever have the slightest idea of what the hell they’re ever talking about.

There’s a moment in the second act where the Dude goes over to Ben Gazzara’s house, and Ben is talking to him about the money, and he suddenly gets a phone call.  Ben takes the call and hurriedly jots something down on a notepad.  He leaves the room and the Dude darts across the room, takes a pencil and shades the paper.  Why does he do that?  Because he saw it in a detective movie.  The Dude, at that moment, is finally thinking like a detective.  A movie detective, but a detective nonetheless.  And he shades the paper and what does he find?  Ben Gazzara has written down not a phone number, nor a safe-combination, nor a cryptic acronym; he has scrawled the image of a man with a big dick.

Because this is a movie about how nothing means anything anymore.  LA still exists, but the LA of Raymond Chandler does not.  Why does it not exist?  Because the noirs of the 40s took place against the backdrop of World War II.  The horror and agony and anxiety of that war, which could not be expressed in the actual war films of the day, were instead expressed in the noirs of the day, the darkness and duplicity and violence of detective stories.  The Big Lebowski, by contrast, pointedly takes place against the background of the Gulf War, a war which meant nothing and acheived nothing (and, history has shown, did not have a happy ending).

The fact is, nothing in the movie means anything.  The Dude is hired to be the courier for a ransom, but it turns out that there is no kidnapping, there is no hostage and there is no ransom money.  The Dude is cynical enough to suggest that the kidnap victim “kidnapped herself,” but he doesn’t take it far enough.  The fact is, the “kidnap victim” didn’t even know any of this was happening.  And who are the “real” kidnappers?  Nihlists, whose cry is “We believe in nozzing!”

Why is the Dude the right man for his time?  Because he is the only man who can solve the case.  The Dude is a man for whom nothing already means anything.  And not in some “nihlist” way, either.  The Dude simply doesn’t care.  The Dude, as he says to the cowboy, “abides.”  The Dude takes it easy.  Nothing affects him.  The tumbling tumbleweed, at the beginning of the movie?  We think it’s a talking tumbleweed at first.  But it’s the Dude.  The Dude is the one who is rootless, blowing on the breeze toward the beach.

That’s not Walter.  Walter clings to everything way too much, searches desperately for everything to have meaning.  No wonder he converted to Judaism, it’s the only religion that means anything to him.  And the core of the movie is the scenes between, what’s this, “the mismatched buddy detectives,” Dude and Walter, one of whom skates along not paying attention and the other whom attaches far too much meaning to every new scrap of clue.

The rich man has no money.  The kidnappers have no hostage.  The hostage isn’t even in town.  Donny’s death means nothing.  No wonder Walter scrambles to find meaning, tries way too hard.

And now, tonight’s viewing, my firstof the movie since Katrina, reveals another level.  The Big Lebowski’s rant to the Dude about the rug, “Let me get this straight, every time a rug is urinated upon in this city, I am to pay compensation?”  introduces a political thrust to the narrative.  The Dude’s rug has been ruined because of the Big Lebowski’s chicanery, but he feels no responsibility.  Instead, the Big Lebowski lectures the Dude about personal responsibility, thrift and hard work.  Keep in mind, this movie was released two years before Bush II was elected.

Then, this leitmotif keeps coming around, “fucking you in the ass.”  People keep threatening to fuck the Dude and Walter in the ass.  This always comes down to people of means using force and violence to make the lives of the poor worse, sending goons into the Dude’s house, over and over, to wreck the place.  Walter, for one, has had enough, and when it appears that a 15-year-old kid has “fucked him in the ass,” he goes out into a street and demolishes what turns out to be an innocent stranger’s car while screaming, over and over at the top of his lungs, “This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!”  He’s certainly angry at the kid, but in a way he’s angry about the ass-fucking that he’s getting every day from the Big Lebowskis of the world.

Finally, at Donny’s funeral, he’s had enough.  He’s not going to pay $182 for an urn.  He’s not going to get fucked in the ass again.  He’s going to put his friend’s (okay, he wasn’t that much of a friend) ashes into a Folger’s coffee can and dump his ashes into the Pacific (although, of course, he misses) before he gets fucked in the ass again.

And the Dude and Walter go back to bowling.  They are even, miraculously, still in the finals, despite the death of their partner.  The Dude abides.

This movie, for me, went from being pale and unpersuasive to standing as the Coen’s densest, most intricate, most interesting and, in a way, most profound movie.
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42 Responses to “The Big Lebowski”
  1. craigjclark says:

    I saw Lebowski twice in the theaters (once by myself and once with a friend) and maybe half a dozen times since it’s come out on video. It’s the kind of film that can be frustrating the first or even the second time through, but if you give it enough chances to wash over you, something will click.

    For my part, at first I thought it took too long to wrap up after the Dude has his final confrontation with the Big Lebowski. That wraps up the “plot,” so why do the Dude and Walter then have to go bowling, have their run-in with the nihilists and have to deal with Donny’s death? Wasn’t that all superfluous? On first glance, yes, but on my third time through a line of dialogue jumped out at me and I realized what was going on:

    The Dude: They finally did it. They killed my fucking car.

    The Dude’s car — which had its tires shot out, was stolen and taken on a joy ride, was crashed by its driver when he tried to flick a lit joint out a closed window, and was demolished by the enraged owner of the car Walter did a number on — had to be ritually sacrificed, one more casualty of the Dude’s misguided search for justice in a world where there is none.

    Is The Big Lebowski about how we shouldn’t get involved in conflicts we don’t understand? Should we let certain agressions stand if we’re not equipped to respond to them correctly? I don’t think the Coens are isolationists, but if you look at the Dude’s life at the beginning of the film, the worst thing that has happened is his rug has been peed on. If he had let that “stand,” he would still have a car, Donny would still be alive and he wouldn’t have been hit in the head with that coffee mug.

    But on the other hand, there is that Little Lebowski on the way, isn’t there? (Shades of the ending of Raising Arizona?)

    • Todd says:

      If he had let that “stand,” he would still have a car, Donny would still be alive and he wouldn’t have been hit in the head with that coffee mug.

      The Dude says as much late in the movie, I think after the coffee cup but before the fire, about how he would have been so much better off if he’d never bothered trying to get compensated for his rug. Which, of course, wasn’t his idea in the first place, it was Walter’s.

      Maybe in some way it’s all just about the Gulf War. But I have no idea how to trace that metaphor through the movie.

      One of my favorite things about the Dude is how he quite literally has no original thoughts, he just parrots things he heard earlier that day in new contexts. He hears Bush say “This aggression will not stand” and then later says it to the Big Lebowski in reference to his rug. This happens three or four times during the movie, where someone says something to him in one context and he then repeats it to someone else in a different context.

      I had a friend once who was quite a bit like Walter. Dressed in army fatigues, was staunchly anti-authority, extremely paranoid, and was an expert on any possible topic you could name. The scene where Walter expounds on how easy it would be for him to get a toe on short notice was exactly how my friend would have reacted to the same situation. That’s how I could tell how good John Goodman’s performance is, because he completely nailed that guy.

      • Anonymous says:

        Maybe Walter represents the way that people who have had so many wars in the past start seing war as a solution for everything. They seek confrontation, and sometimes force those who avoid it into it as well. I mean, look at Smokey. All he wanted was to go bowling, yet Walter thought the the only way to enforce the rules was to shove a gun in his face. Yet, at the end, after Donnie’s death, we see a different side of Walter. “I’m sorry dude.” He’s almost submissive. Maybe one of the side stories is Walter learning that confontation, as well as everything else, means nothing.

      • scru says:

        Obviously The Dude is Kuwait and the guys who pissed on his rug/Treehorn are/is Iraq.

        (I realize this is an older post of yours, but it came up when I googled “Why do people like the Big Lebowski so much?”)

      • devophill says:

        that guy?

        Famed screenwriter, director, lunatic John Milius.

    • Anonymous says:

      your icon

      This is ridiculous to say, but I fucking love your icon. Schizopolis is my favorite S.S. film and I really enjoyed seeing your icon. Have you read his book that was written during post-production of the film?

      • craigjclark says:

        Re: your icon

        Not ridiculous at all. Schizopolis is a wondrous film. And my icon was taken from the photos on the cover of that very book, Getting Away With It, which is such an excellent read that I’m probably going to charge my way through it again in the near future.

  2. sheherazahde says:

    I’m glad I Friended you.

    This is the sort of insight into a story that I really appriciate.

  3. schwa242 says:

    You sir, hit the nail on the head.

  4. eronanke says:

    Agreed, my friend. It takes MULTIPLE viewings, (for me, it was 5), before I even started to understand what the hell was going on, mood/character-wise.

  5. toliverchap says:

    This is your best review yet. I think you are onto quite a few things here. I’ll admit that for me that movie is quite hilarious but I could be a product of the nothing means anything culture or just a vulgarian (redundancy for good measure) I mean you really can’t go wrong with a dynamic duo of a big angry fat guy and a lanky stoner. Your assessment of the film is super apt and I think that the noir-WWII aside provides a reasonable answer to why the Coen’s made the seemingly arbitrary choice of setting the movie 7 years before it was made.

    • Anonymous says:

      Right on, Todd.

      This is your best review yet of one of my favourite movies ever.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Ooh! Ooh! Now do Toy Story…[ahh! i love that film!]

    • Todd says:

      I’m not sure when I will next sit down to watch Toy Story. It is one of my favorite films of all time, with a flatly amazing script, but I watched it so many times with my kids that I doubt I would sit down to watch it again for fun soon. But one never knows where my research will take me.

  7. Anonymous says:


    Yes its good. Is it that good? That depends if you are high or not.

  8. Anonymous says:


    Wait I just got it! The sketch of Josh Emery at Voucher Ankles a dozen posts back was the Unabomber…ahh…
    Hee hee…

  9. looseforms says:

    I finally understand!

    I found this review through Preshrunk, and I’m so glad that I did. I watched The Big Lewbowski last year, and I did not get it. After hearing so much about it, it was frustrating to not understand why it was so relevant to everyone else. Part of that could probably be blamed on my age; I was just a kid when the Gulf War was going on and I barely remember it. Obviously there were deeper layers to it that I just didn’t get, but it probably would have taken me many viewings that may or may not have happened before I really began to understand the point. This review was very helpful to me, and I can’t wait to re-watch the movie now.

  10. belgand says:

    Eh… quite frankly it feels like you’re overanalyzing. If this is what it means to you then feel free to accept that it’s right and good and enjoy it.

    IIRC the Coens stated that they got the idea by imagining a friend of theirs (whom the Dude is based off of) being thrown into a Chandler-esque mystery. Much of the plotting and characters are lifted directly from The Big Sleep. I doubt that they as filmmakers were trying to present something along the lines of what you’ve interpreted.

    Personally I enjoyed the film greatly the first time I saw it. I loved the minor characters, the unconstrained wackiness and surreality, I laughed my ass off, and I had no problem following the plot. Later when I read the Big Sleep I had no problems with the plot there either (although, admittedly, it really shows it’s origins as three short stories shoehorned together and, inexplicably, works really well given it’s origins). Oddly, despite many, many viewings of the Big Lebowski and reading the novel the film The Big Sleep was a tad confusing to me. It’s still a great film, but I blame the filmmakers solely for that.

    • Todd says:

      I doubt that they as filmmakers were trying to present something along the lines of what you’ve interpreted.

      One of my favorite, and most maddening, Coen traits is the way they downplay any suspicion of depth in their films. They describe O Brother Where Art Thou as “a hick comedy” and “The most over-produced Ma-n-Pa Kettle movie ever made.” I’ve read numerous interviews, essays and books about them and they never, ever suggest that their movies are ever about anything worthwhile. Miller’s Crossing, they say, is about a guy who loses his hat, Barton Fink is about a guy with writer’s block, The Man Who Wasn’t There is about a barber who wants to be a dry-cleaner.

      • floydcollins says:

        Have you seen Altman’s Long Goodbye? I think BL is much closer to that than to Big Sleep directly. LG is about a noir detective out of his time, where there is meaning to things, but he’s too dumb to understand them, until it’s too late.

        Also, the dude clearly cares about something, or he wouldn’t try to get redress about the rug. He wants a nice, stable world, but the world won’t cooperate.

  11. Anonymous says:


    Spot on!

    You even corrected the B.L. rant quote from “micturate” which means needing to void, to “urinate” which means actually voiding. When I watched the movie the first time, I considered this might be an intentional misuse, given that “micturate” draws its origin from Latin root terms for excrement, including slagheap resulting from anal insertions.
    I have since come to accept that the term selection is likely more an oversight than some multidimensional thought provocation.

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: Outstanding

      The definition of MICTURATE is “to urinate”. (From Latin micturre, to want to urinate, desiderative of meiere, to urinate.)

      A synonym of VOID is also “DISCHARGE” or “URINATE”. You speak many large flowery words to prove an incorrect point.

      At least you got the derivation right.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: Outstanding

        If you look closely at the check the Dude is writing in the very begining of the movie, you will see it is dated for September 11th. At the same time, George Bush Sr. is on the tv screen at the check-out counter. He is talking about the war in Iraq.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Outstanding

          (cue Twilight Zone theme)

        • Anonymous says:

          Re: Outstanding

          Yeah, this is true, but it can’t be a set-up by the Coen Brothers because this movie was released in 1998. This is not a conspiracy theory or anything related to that.

          • Anonymous says:

            Re: Outstanding

            Pure coincidence, but freaky none the less; 10 years to the day. The joke here is that he is POSTDATING the check. You don’t find this out until you hear the landlord point out that it’s already the 10th (and the rent is late).

  12. Anonymous says:

    I must be close to the minds of the Coen Brothers, because the first time I saw this movie, the only thing I didn’t understand was Bunny’s actual deal as far as the “kidnapping” goes. It took me two or three times to figure out that the nihilists were just trying to get money off of Lebowski. However, I do notice something else small that adds to the brilliance of the film every time I see it.

    As for your opinion that this is the most profound Coen Brtohers movie…I could never argue with that. O BROTHER WHEREART THOU is a good one to exercise the mind with, too. I’ll never be able to say for sure, but if THE BIG LEBOWSKI is indeed one day proven to be the most profound Coen Brothers move, I will not oppose that.

    “And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave…”

  13. Anonymous says:

    Few motion pictures reward repeated viewings more than 2001, and few reward repeated viewings less than Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

    The movie is not without humor (or attempts at it); I recall several scenes between Kirk and McCoy which were clearly meant to be funny, as well as the ever-present gibes between Kirk, McCoy and Spock. But it does take itself awful serious.

  14. wavycorn says:

    This is, by far, my favorite analysis of the movie. I liked the movie at first because of the amazing characterization, it’s open eccentricity, its complexity (the Big Sleep is a favorite of mine, both in book and movie form). However, the general depth in the film, whether it’s the Coens’ intent or not, is amazing, and this review really brings it out.

    The line, “The Dude abides,” reminds me of a quote from Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus.” He quotes Oedipus as saying, “Despite so many ordeals, my advanced age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well.” Also, Camus states that “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” The Dude wins. He’s not happy, like Camus pictures Sisyphus, though. For one thing, Sisyphus and The Dude are very different. The Dude has a stoic apathia that cannot be reached by anyone who tries. His apathy is entirely natural. If it were otherwise, it would fail.

  15. Anonymous says:

    what about his rivalry against a man named jesus

  16. Anonymous says:


    No one seems to have mentioned the big lebowski/great gatsby connection. Look at the titles, the narrator’s last words in the film and the book, and think about the characters and what they represent in regards to the American dream in the 20s and 90s, respectively. It’s rich.

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: Gatsby

      The movie is rich. I remember seeing the promo for TBL in ’98, having been a Raising Arizona afficianado, and thinking that it was just a goofball, retro Ameri-dreck pseudo-homage to bowling– which it is, in a sense.

      But there’s much more. I didn’t see TBL until last week; the movie is deep, despite the rather shallow stuff that I assume most cultists who are fixated on the Dude and Dudisms take away from it. (‘The Dude Abiding’, which reminds me of Chaucer’s Knight who ‘bears himself with equanimity’, is the least interesting part of the film, for me.)

      TBL, despite its shambling surface and goofiness, can sustain analyses that no other Cohen brothers film can.

      The old hippie protester signing his check for 9/11 with Bush One’s face on the screen is downright spooky; war in the Persian Gulf co-inciding with the Dude’s Persian rug being stolen; Jesus the pedophile as the nemesis; the sexual imagery of bowling while all the male characters are basically castratos (what do you need your dick for, Dude?), with the only virile and phallic male in the film being Jackie Treehorn– Tree of Life? Devil’s horns? Dressed in red and white?– a pornographer who treats ‘objects like women’. Maude and her ‘bowling’-cum-harpy style of painting ‘vaginal’ art. And on and on. It’s all fascinating.

      Fargo comes in a nice, tight, Oscar-worthy package; No Country has its limits– what is a moral choice?, the emptiness of modernity, nihilism. But TBL has real, murky depths, and can sustain something like limitless analyses.

      I suspect that time will be kinder to TBL than Fargo or No Country (both of which I’ve just watched again)– believe it or not.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Interesting analysis, but Nothing Means Anything = Life has No Meaning = Nihilism. And the Coens certainly went out of their way to make the Nihilists as ridiculous and ineffectual as possible.

    “there is no kidnapping, there is no hostage and there is no ransom money” – Just because things are not what they seem, does not mean that “nothing means anything”, its just that meaning is wrapped in lies. That’s the nature of mystery stories. “There is more than meets the eye”, cliche, cliche, cliche.

    I also disagree that the tumbleweed is the dude. He is anything but mobile. As a guess I would say that the tumbleweed and the stranger represent the plot line that is about to unfold, as the Stranger says. The events of the movie kind of roll into the dude’s life, disrupting his mellowed-out routine, and then roll out at the end.

    What does the movie mean? I confess that I enjoy the movie tremendously and never really worried about what it means.

    There’s clearly an issue with women. The Coens usually write strong roles for women, but the 2 main characters in TBL are unmarried. TBL himself is the only one married, and he’s miserable. The two women are train wrecks in their own way, with Maude being the most screwed up character in the movie. As far as Walter is concerned, the one thing in his life that doesn’t tick him off is his divorce.

    So perhaps the movie is about middle aged men substituting family with friendship. Walter and the dude are clearly a couple – their talk out their lives with each other, share adventures and have common interests. The dude fights with Walter, but Walter is the first person he calls when he needs help. The two are practially married.

    Just my opinion. Thanks for hosting this site.

    • Anonymous says:


      For one, the review you’re replying to is brilliant.

      “Nothing Means Anything = Life has No Meaning = Nihilism”
      You see, you can’t just turn around logical statements and think they’re equally valid. I mean you can, but that doesn’t make for a meaningful statement then.

      There are a few confusing things about what your wrote. Maude being the most screwed up character in the movie? Can’t follow down you that road at all. If anything, the Nihilists and TBL are the srewed up ones.

      “The movie is about middle aged men substituting family with friendship.”

      If that would have been the initial analysis, I think nobody would have even bothered to comment.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Spot on!

    I think you have been quite accurate in your interpretation. I am also in strong agreement that The Big Lebowski may very well be the most insightful of the Coen brothers’ currently released screenplays.


  19. astrangelove says:

    Nice write up.

    Just watched the movie, took it at all face value. My suspicions got the better of me, and the substance of the film has been revealed to me. Too bad I don’t care much for it.

  20. Anonymous says:


    thats a lot of bullshit

  21. Anonymous says:

    Sorry, but if you didnt like it at first because it wasnt funny enough, then I never want to see one of the films you wrote. This is the funniest film ever made in America. Name a funnier one.

    Im glad you finally realized it for the great film it is, though.

    (P.S. Yes, I know there are no apostrophes in my comments; Ive given up using them.)

    • Todd says:

      The fault lay not in the execution of the movie but with my expectations going in.

      • Anonymous says:

        Iraq War

        Found my way here after seeing the movie for the first time tonight and wanting to see what others had to say about it.

        Just as food for thought, it seems odd to me that we never hear the John Goodman character, who is obsessed with Vietnam, comment in any way on the Iraq war. It’s one hell of an omission, especially if he is supposed to be Jewish. It’s also pretty glaring given the prominence of Saddam and the first Gulf war in the film.

        If we can’t take the Dude seriously as a “hero for the times”, I’m not sure where this leaves us interpreting the film. Nihilism? I’m leaning towards a casual dig at the Gulf War as a convoluted play of self-interested parties which caused more damage than it solved and was not even motivated by any particular political philosophy (i.e. “not even fascism”). The references to the (Republican) political establishment in the 1980s were probably not accidental. Or maybe they were.

        Thanks for the read.