This 1998 film, which is pretty wacky, has achieved cult or near-cult status for several reasons, not least because its characters may say “fuck” more often than in any other movie. (Someone actually made a count.)
This, and other charms, have given Lebowski an enduring popularity among filmgoers who enjoy watching people do dumb things or struggle in ridiculous situations. And, honestly, the talky dialogue is often hilarious.
The movie was the seventh from from the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, following “Fargo,” which won two Academy Awards (actress, original screenplay) and was filmed in the Upper Midwest.
I’m going to speculate here that the Coens decided to choose a sunnier setting for their next outing and came up with Malibu — either that or they had retained the services of actor Jeff Bridges, who lives in Malibu, to play the lead role of the Dude, and all the pieces fell into place as they wrote their screenplay.
Where “Fargo” is a crime/comedy with a dark edges, Lebowski is a comedy/crime story with eccentric characters and a lot of property damage.
That latter sets the story in motion. The Dude, a drifter who favors Black Russians that turn his mustache milky, is disturbed one day by two thugs who bang into his apartment, push his face into the toilet, pee on his rug and demand to know where the money is.
The Dude explains that he is the Dude, and while he seems to have the same official name as a rich guy in Pasadena, he does not have a wife named Bunny who is being held for ransom. After the thugs leave, the Dude is very angry because, as he says repeatedly, the fouled rug had “really tied the room together.”
He gets into his battered car and drives to confront the big Lebowski at his mansion. There, the Dude demands the replacement of his rug, which is not offered, but he hears later from the big L, who desires his assistance. From there the plot is off to the races, and we learn, again and again, that things are not always as they seem.
There are three hostile nihilists; a pornography king who employs enforcers; an avant artist Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), daughter of the non-Dude with her own enforcers; a nasty but silent 15-year-old, and, just for the humor of it, a “brother shamus” who follows the Dude around and whom the Dude assumes is an Irish monk, presumably a Brother Seamus.
The local bowling alley is the Dude’s hangout, where he and two teammates are in a finals tournament. They are dim Donny (Steve Buscemi) and, more dramatically, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) a Jewish convert and a hothead prone to overreactions that cause the Dude to step up as a calming influence, but without much success. When asked to represent the Pasadena Lebowski’s interests, the Dude takes Walter with him, which is not as helpful as might have been hoped, given Walter’s oft-mentioned military experience.
Besides Coen regulars Buscemi and Goodman, another one, John Turturro as Jesus (Geesus) Quintana, is there not to advance the plot but to promote, humorously and in his own way, his bowling team in its coming competition with the Dude/Donny/Walter squad.
There are repeated riffs — bad guys storming into the Dude’s apartment (which really could use a deadbolt), more and more damage to his old car with its tape deck and Creedence tapes, and at least two Dude fantasy sequences occasioned by violence and spiked White Russians.
Since I’m speculating about how this story came together and since the plot isn’t entirely coherent or even the point of the exercise, I will venture further and guess that another Malibu resident, Sam Elliott — he of the distinguished mustache and gravelly voice — was drafted to provide some semblance of narrative structure as the Stranger. The Stetson-wearing Stranger introduces the story in an opening accompanied by a Sons of the Pioneers chorus of “Tumbling Tumbleweed” and as an actual tumbleweed — no doubt imported as a prop — rolls down a Malibu beach toward the Pacific Ocean.
Midway along and at the end of the film, The Stranger meets the Dude over sarsaparilla and beer, respectively, in the bar at the bowling alley.
In their final conversation, the Stranger puts a question to the Dude: “Do you have to use so many cuss words?” The answer seems to be, why not?
“The Dude abides,” the Dude says as he leaves to join his bowling team, leaving the Stranger to put the Dude and his story into perspective.
— The Dude is a fashion-casual fellow whose street attire not infrequently consists of pajama bottoms and a distinctive sweater, a Pendleton Westerly that reportedly came from Jeff Bridges’ personal wardrobe.
The Portland-based Pendleton Woolens company drew on Native American designs for the Westerly, which was sold from 1972 until sometime in the 1980s. It was reintroduced sometime after 2010, presumably to appeal to Dude enthusiasts.
— Sam Elliott appeared with Lil Nas X in a 2020 Super Bowl commercial that made use of Elliott’s Western look and Nas’ very popular “Old Town Road.” Good song.