A Slow-Moving Tumbleweed: The Big Lebowski at 25

Dudeism. It's the world's “slowest growing religion,” according to its founder's website, a place where one can be ordained in the ancient religion of the Dude. For those who abide, the Dude is not just a film character but a way of life. Of course, the religion was formed by disciples of The Big Lebowski, which turns 25 this year.

The '90s was the backdrop of an independent movie apocalypse and the breakthrough decade for many talented directors. It was the era of Quentin Tarantino‘s mind-blowing postmodernist soundtracks and dialogue, Richard Linklater's shapeshifting sense of perspective, and Sofia Coppola's otherworldly explorations of female representation among dozens of other brave, new visionaries.

Outlandish and unafraid to offend, this new Brat-Pack of auteurs treated moviegoers to some of the greatest visual experiences. Following on from the fountain of money the big studios built in the decade before, these directors took independent cinema from fringe arthouse vanity projects into thoroughbred Academy Award factories — notwithstanding the obvious Harvey-shaped elephant in the room.

This indie invasion changed how the big studios operated — with several indie companies bought out by the Goliaths of Hollywood. This investment came as no surprise: low budget and high yield is something Tinseltown doesn't ignore.

Coming at the end of this period was the Coen Brothers' comedy masterpiece; those three words bring a smile to most movie buffs north of forty years old, especially for those who have seen it in excess of ten times.

A Slow Start

The movie was produced by the British independent production company Working Title Pictures and launched at Sundance Film Festival in January 1998. However, this preceded a modest theater opening, the film making a smaller splash than titans Pulp Fiction (Miramax), The Blair Witch Project (Artisan Entertainment), or Se7en (New Line Cinema).

The film's box-office returns in Australia and Britain eclipsed US revenues entirely.

John Goodman Hollywood Walk of Fame speech by the Dude

However, as the new millennium passed, The Big Lebowski grew. It became a mainstay of facetious preppies, with posters of the Dude and Jesus adorning dorm walls of film students and movie geeks across the western world and beyond. Ten years after its release, it sold over 30,000 units per week on DVD; 20 years later, it was still selling 7,000 units per week in the US.

It has spawned countless commercial opportunities: merchandise, boxsets, tours, conventions, festivals, and even its own philosophical religion. Anybody who visited a bowling alley in the western world between 1998 and 2003 may have seen people dressed as the Dude, Walter, or Jesus; they will surely have heard Walter's famous retort: “Shut the f**k up, Donnie!” or “F**k it, Dude. Let's go bowling.”

“Is this your homework, Larry?”

At these north Los Angeles bowling houses, brothers Joel and Ethan first went down the rabbit hole into the world of '60s burnouts, Vietnam veterans, and mild-mannered surf bums. From hanging out with California's forgotten men, they gave us an understated, postmodern play on a Raymond Chandler detective mystery, a screwball comedy, a buddy movie, and a film noir all rolled into one.

Many critics at the time did not abide; its understated genius didn't enamor them. Several prominent film critics of the time were bemused by its frivolous use of characters, shallow plot sequence, or unrealistic presentation of American tropes. This argument faded over time, with most of the same critics taking back their commentaries.

Rather, Rinse, Repeat

After all, it is a film that requires multiple screenings for the viewer to marvel at the subtle mastery. Very few people get it the first time.

Even Steve Buscemi said in a reunion interview a few years ago that he wasn't sure what was happening in the script when he read it. It wasn't until his final scene (or the final scene in which his ashes are scattered from a coffee can into the Dude's nonplussed face) that he understood Donnie's role.

“Then I got to the last scene,” said Buscemi, “…and I saw the relationship; I saw how much Walter loves Donnie and how they are like brothers.” Donnie's relationship with Walter is one of the film's funniest motifs and provides a go-to line for any Lebowski lover in need.

The Big Lebowski is a masterpiece, as far as I am concerned,” said Jeff Bridges in an interview in 2016. “Though I may be biased, because I am in it.”

“Mark it zero!”

Upon a new viewing, the film still glides with its effortless Roger Deakins pans, noir lighting, and melodramatic extreme long-shots. It does look dated — this film was shot before the frame rates and digital aspect ratios achieved their current singularity. In any case, films should look dated if they are to be considered part of the zeitgeist.

Art is supposed to represent the time, and The Big Lebowski is a piece of art.

It struck a chord with slackers, stoners, and students — and their older, employed peers — of the new millennium, with plenty of one-liner ammunition and fodder for late-night discussions on the beauty of the cinematography or the sheer pointlessness of it all.

Abide and Chill

The movie's genius is the scope of its storyline: which is as narrow as the range of the Dude's casual meanderings between his apartment, the grocery store, and the bowling alley. On paper, the plot about a nobody living somewhere near north Los Angeles being shaken down by a seemingly rich local grandee is simple.

The tapestry of stock character introductions and cameos gives The Big Lebowski its magic dust. Joel and Ethan Coen have a gift for introducing these characters in unforgettable ways:

Juliane Moore's Maude Lebowski flying like a Valkyrie from the ceiling of her art studio, the German nihilists unleashing the marmot, and bowling alley creep Jesus (replete with a long, varnished pinky nail) licking the bowling ball before hitting the perfect strike, is the stuff of legend.

“I am the Walrus?”

So how does the movie stand up in 2023? Twenty-five years later, the cast members scattered into various successful careers, many continuing as usual.

Jeff Bridges continued his Coen odyssey with the marvelous True Grit in 2010. That came in the wake of his acting magnum opus, Crazy Heart, for which he won many awards, including a Golden Globe and Academy Award.

John Goodman had already sailed with the Coens on Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Barton Fink. However, he went on to appear in two more of their films: the subsequent O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Inside Llewyn Davis.

Jeff Bridges famously inducted Goodman onto the Hollywood Walk of Fame dressed as Jeff Lebowski, a speech for which he alluded to Walter's infamous eulogy for Donnie.

Strangely, Steve Buscemi — who had already scaled great heights in the amazing Fargo — only went on to star in the Coens' short Tuileries in 2006. However, Buscemi would become a huge beneficiary of the feature-length TV show movement with his highly successful Boardwalk Empire.

“Shomer Shabbos”

Of the smaller cast members, John Turturro starred in a comedy spinoff movie featuring his much-loved Jesus Quintana character. He wrote and directed a star-studded feature after seeking permission from the brothers. However, the movie bombed at the box office and received poor reviews. The Jesus Rolls never caught the magic of Jesus' enigma, and the plot didn't do justice to the character.

Julianne Moore was already established as a screen heavyweight and continued her formidable screen and TV career. She even became the first woman to secure two Oscar nominations in the same year, for The Hours and Far From Heaven in 2002.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman went on a trajectory of greatness after The Big Lebowski, an Oscar for his role as Truman Capote, part of an impressive run in the new millennium. He became one of his generation's hardest-working and most revered actors before sadly taking his own life in 2014.

Another cast member no longer with us is David Huddleston, who, after a stellar career in film and TV, departed the stage for good in 2016. His role portraying Jeffrey “The Big” Lebowski gives the film much-needed noirish gravitas.

Gathering No Moss

The Coen brothers went on to shoot another eleven films together, culminating in a Netflix feature, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in 2018. They went their separate ways for their next two projects, Joel directing the thriller The Tragedy of Macbeth in 2021 of A24 Productions and Apple TV, while Ethan directed docufilm Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind in 2022.

As producers, they turned Fargo over to Noah Hawley, who created an award-winning TV series, inspired by their film, that has lasted four seasons, with season five on its way soon. The brothers also produced Bad Santa (2002) and then nabbed producing or writing credits on Romance and Cigarettes (2006), Unbroken (2014), Bridge of Spies (2015), and Suburbicon (2017).

“Basic freedoms”

Perhaps most interesting thing about The Big Lebowski is some theorists' deeper reading of the film as an allegory of the first Gulf War. The movie, set in the early '90s, sees various allusions to Saddam Hussain and George H.W. Bush. Whether it was an allegory or not (we must remember, it was shot some years later), the parallels are clear today.

Near the film's end, upon discovering the true motivation of his namesake and tormenter, the Dude says to The “Big” Lebowski, “This aggression will not stand, man!”

Twenty-five years later, the world looks on as eastern Europe takes up headline after headline in global news coverage. With the Russo-Ukrainian still raging on and with hard-working people everywhere suffering the cost, the message to our leaders is clear:

In a world of Big Lebowskis, be the Dude.

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.