In the 1970s, there was a movie theater in New Haven, CT that showed the classic World War II film Casablanca (1942) every night at midnight. The theater always had at least a half-full house, mainly of Yale students. One evening, the audio went out on the film. The audience knew the film so well that they recited the dialogue as the movie continued to play. Eventually, the sound was restored and the audience went back to quietly watching the movie.
Now, did this actually happen? Well, I remember hearing this story, but can’t find any evidence of it—but it sure seems plausible. I mean, who hasn’t seen Casablanca enough times to have certain scenes memorized?
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that audiences glom onto in almost irrational ways. Obviously, Casablanca falls in that category. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is another. There was a movie theater in my old neighborhood in Los Angeles that played it every Saturday night at midnight, and you could go by the theater at that time and always see people dressed up as characters from the movie. Mean Girls is a modern example.
The Big Lebowski (1998) is clearly another one of those movies that is loved to death. Want proof? Every year in Louisville, KY, a Lebowski Fest is held, and fans travel from all over the country and the world to dress up as characters from the movie and revel in its glories. The best part of this: Louisville has no connection with the film in any way.
So naturally, the question has to be asked: is the movie really any good? The obvious answer is yes. Of course it’s good. To paraphrase the old saying about Elvis, 50 million Lebowski fans can’t be wrong.
The deeper question is: does the film have any real artistic merit?
That question was certainly under review when it first was released 20 years ago. The Big Lebowski was released two years after the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, Fargo (1996). Fargo was a huge artistic and commercial success. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and won for Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay. It was named one of the 100 Best American Films by the American Film Institute and was chosen for preservation by the National Film Registry.
When The Big Lebowski was released two years later, it received politely positive reviews from critics, who seemed somewhat puzzled by its eccentricities. The New York Times praised Jeff Bridges and John Goodman, but said the movie “ambles along.” Roger Ebert called it “a genial, shambling comedy.” Peter Travers in Rolling Stone called it, “the best comedy ever set in a bowling alley.”
With the passage of time, however, the film has gained greater acceptance. For many film lovers—especially Coen Brothers fans—it may actually be better than Fargo. Several things are at work here in this assessment.
Performances. The performances are top-to-bottom almost shockingly outstanding in The Big Lebowski. And what a cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Huddleston (the Big Lebowski), Tara Reid, John Turturro, Sam Elliott, and Ben Gazzara. Want to find me a better cast in any movie than that? And every single one of them turn in career-making performances, particularly Bridges and Goodman.
Script. Here’s what Joel Coen said about the script: “We wanted to do a [Raymond] Chandler type of story, how it moves episodically, and deals with characters trying to unravel mystery, as well as having a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant.” Consider that last part—the hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant. That is brilliantly difficult to pull off. Can you think of any other movie in which the central mystery that drives all the action doesn’t actually matter in the end? As a feat of writing, this ranks up there among the best. Plus, the script is chock-full of some of the most ornately quotable lines ever written for film. Among them this gem: “Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, dude, at least it's an ethos.”
The Look. The film was shot by frequent Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins, one of the best cinematographers of the past thirty years. Set in Los Angeles, most of the scenes are at night. Los Angeles really is a city of the night. While the daylight of Southern California is what everyone thinks of, the true dreamy, bewildering character of Los Angeles is best experienced at night. Steve Martin once wrote, “New York is laid out on a grid. Los Angeles is laid out on a maze.”
The Big Lebowski proves this observation to be true better than almost any film I can think of, even Chinatown (1974). The city is a relentlessly confusing and mystifying place, complicated in ways that seem completely unnecessary. For instance, the weather is always the same, except it isn’t. It’s located in a semi-arid Mediterranean climate…and ringed by mountains that are covered with snow for much of the year. In many ways, the movie is about Los Angeles and the millions of eccentrics that live there more than anything else. That’s why the cast is so huge: a pothead, an angry Vietnam vet, a performance artist landlord, a pornographer, ex-patriated German nihilists. And on and on.
What this movie does for its viewers is grab hold of them and take them into a world that is both utterly familiar (bowling alleys and diners and car rides) and yet completely mysterious at the same time. What is The Big Lebowski really about? I don’t know. That’s why I keep watching it, and why millions of others do as well. I’ll let you know if I figure it out.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.