Updated: Apr 26
If you’ve been keeping up with my Instagram stories, you’ll know that I’ve just recently watched The Big Lebowski (1998) and I thought I’d look at it a little more in-depth. That way, for those of you who are trying to watch films with a critical eye, you can see how to do it, and what to be looking for and at.
First, let me begin by explaining the plot and tell you what kind of film it is and should be. So, The Big Lebowski is about a “bum” called Jeff Lebowski (Jeffrey Bridges), or as he likes to be called “The Dude”, who is unfortunately mistaken for a millionaire with the same name. The millionaire Lebowski (David Huddleston) has a wife, Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid) who owes a lot of money to a lot of people in the porn industry, and because of that, those very same people come knocking on The Dude’s door.
What happens after is like some kind of trippy dream or nightmare, depending on how you look at it. The Big Lebowski’s wife is kidnapped, The Dude has to handle a drop-off, he messes up, things go haywire, it turns out the Big Lebowski used money from a charity organisation to pay for the ransom, the artistic daughter of the Big Lebowski, Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) gets involved. It’s one big trippy nightmare for The Dude, who just wanted payment, for the rug that was soiled at the beginning of the film, and to bowl with his buddies, since the big leagues were coming up, his team had a chance to win the finals.
In short, you could say it was a series of unfortunate events (all puns intended) that happened around The Dude, all because of the rug and his best friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), who has some PTSD and anger issues since he’s a veteran from the Vietnam War. When you watch it, you have to take it with a pinch of salt, because nothing like what you see in the film ever happens in real life. I mean, what are the odds you have the exact same name as a millionaire or ever get attacked by a gang of Germans, with a pet ferret? Very unlikely, but hey, you do hear stories.
Colour Is Important
I will admit one thing, the film has a very consistent colour palette to it, and it does make you feel like you’re in the heat of the Californian summer, throughout the entire thing, despite being nowhere near California (at least for someone like me, who lives in the UK, where it’s raining all the time).
The constant dirty yellows, the camo greens and the washed-out reds, really do evoke the sense of desert heat. It’s all very muted and dull, especially since there are some scenes that should be very colourful and wild. The constant use of the dirty yellows is also something that reminds us that The Dude isn’t as well-to-do as his millionaire counterpart.
Also, if you’ve noticed, the bowling alley that provides the backdrop, for most of the film, has a lot of red tones, which actually makes sense, because of Walter’s anger and PTSD issues. You see in a lot of his interactions with The Dude, and other characters he has a short fuse and tends to start shouting and getting aggressive, and most of the time, those outbursts are either in that bowling alley or in scenes where the red is prominent, like when he’s beating up that sports car.
It’s One Big Trippy Dream
All right, let’s look at the composition of the film, all together, and not just what’s in the scenes. First, what I think the Coen brothers (the producers of the film) were trying to do was to make the film evoke the kind of feeling that what’s happing is just one of those trippy, hippy 60s kinds of dreams. I mean, they’re working with CGI technology, green screen studios and set designs that are reminiscent of a flapper show in the 1920s, in some of their dream sequences, when The Dude has either been drugged or knocked out.
If I’m not mistaken, they could have just used trippy light shows, while The Dude floats about in those dream sequences, but they have some semblance of a story, like when The Dude shows Maude Lebowski how to bowl. So, I think what is going on here is that the Coen brothers were trying to show that, even though The Dude is inebriated and unconscious, he still has some faculty to think, even if there really isn’t much of a narrative to his thoughts. You can probably say that it’s all representative of his inner desires.
Another aspect you could look at is the fact that all these problems seem to be happening around The Dude, but for some inexplicable reason, he’s not completely dragged in, or involved, in these situations. What I mean here is that even if The Dude didn’t investigate the person who stole the briefcase that was in his car, or even if Maude Lebowski hadn’t warned him that the kidnap of Bunny Lebowski was a set-up, the Big Lebowski would have still taken the money from his associated charity, and would have pulled The Dude, or even if you took The Dude out, some other kind of “bum” and have him handle the hand-off, and still frame him for stealing the money.
As I said, it’s one big trippy dream, because as you’re watching the film, and you’re following The Dude and everything that surrounds him, you feel like both you and The Dude are floating above those things. I mean, his reaction to everything is pretty chilled. You wouldn’t expect something like that in an action movie like in The Terminator (1991). Even in real life, you wouldn’t rope your friends into helping you handle a hand-off, especially when they’re prone to terrible ideas, and things could go wrong. In highly stressful situations like those, you’d handle it yourself, otherwise, the hostage could be killed.
Now, yes, you could argue that after the hand-off went wrong, The Dude does worry about Bunny Lebowski, but wouldn’t it make sense that if he was that worried, he’d go to the police and ask them for help? The Big Lebowski be damned? What would you do if you were in his situation? I know for sure I’d probably give up and move countries or ask someone to help me investigate the problem and try to solve it the best I can. So, The Dude’s lack of action, other than to go along with Walter’s schemes is a bit off-key with reality.
That’s why I think that the Coen brothers did an excellent job of making the film reminiscent of a trippy dream. It’s well done because it’s a step away from reality. They did a great job because you know that these kinds of situations would never happen in real life. So, although the film might have been underrated when it was first released, and basically just broke even with the budget they’d used to film it, the fact that people can watch the film, and use it to escape their own reality is absolutely spot on. Even now, it’s loved by so many because it gives its audience an hour or two away from the world, into one that makes no sense whatsoever, and yet has some semblance of reality.
What Do I Think?
Personally, many of the tropes in the film were lost to me, since I’m not too familiar with the Hollywood culture, particularly the divide between the millionaires and the “bums” as The Big Lebowski calls them. So, some of the comedy is lost to me, because of that, but I can’t say that I don’t appreciate it. I can see why a lot of people would flock to watch it, not only because it’s a comedy, but because there are some characters that you can associate with.
Sometimes, those associations really do pull you into the story, and that’s what did it for me. The association I had, while not a positive one, is the only thing that really pulled me in. What I’m talking about is Walter Sobchak’s character. John Goodman is really a man of talent. While I know him as the bumbling Fred Flintstones, seeing him in this kind of role was an eyeopener, and I associate with this character because I’ve had to constantly deal with customers like Walter Sobchak when I was working as a sales assistant.
So, his character is one I can identify with because I know what they’re like. Needless to say, I was pretty terrified of him, not because of what he does, but because of what he could do. I mean he pulled a gun on a fellow bowler because he wouldn’t agree with him. He yelled at a waitress in a diner, because she tried to tell him off for swearing in a family restaurant. The poor woman was so scared! I can understand why she backed off and just kept watch from a distance. I’d do the same! People like him, people with short fuses, they’re very hard to deal with, because you don’t know what they’re going to do if you somehow, unintentionally pushed that button.
Of course, even in spite of this, I actually liked the film, maybe not as fanatically as some, but I could definitely watch it again. Not because of the plot, there really is no plot, considering there’s a serious lack of character progression, but because it’s just one giant entertaining ball of swear words, whacky interactions and almost an almost slapstick humour to it all. While it didn’t have me on the floor laughing, it did amuse me enough that I didn’t even pay attention to the runtime of the film, until the credits rolled.
If I had to recommend this film, I would, only because it’ll give you an hour or two away from your life, so that you can re-centre again. It might just be a “what the hell is this?” kind of film for you, but you’ll still watch it because you want to see what The Dude’s going to do next, or what other crazy scheme, Walter has up his sleeve. You might not end up being an avid fan, but you can appreciate that it’s meant to be a piece of entertainment and distraction.
All right, so I haven't really fully analysed this film, since you've probably noticed I haven't spoken about Maude Lebowski's involvement, let alone spoken about Donny and the theory behind him, but as I said before, this is just a little taster on how you need to look at films critically. Maybe one day, I'll actually write an essay, looking at The Big Lebowski in all its glory, but for now, this is what you're getting, since this isn't exactly the time and place to be writing theory essays about a film.
So, now you know how to look at a film critically, have a go of it yourself. You can watch The Big Lebowski and try to see what you can take from it. Determine for yourself whether it’s art or entertainment. Or, if you want, go for a different film, examine that and do the same thing. What’s the colour palette like? What’s the character progression like? Does the plot make sense? Things like that. Every film is different, so every opinion will be different.
I can’t wait to see what you guys come up with. Share with me your ideas and theories and let me see if you can analyse a film critically. Until next time, I’ll see you guys around!