Last week was the 25th anniversary of the release of the now cult classic comedy “The Big Lebowski,” which over the past quarter century has become a damn-near infinitely quotable film. But it was not always so beloved or quoted. Upon its release, the movie was essentially ignored, despite its creators the Coen Brothers’ previous film being the universally adored and award-winning “Fargo.” Indeed, many critics (and probably viewers, too) knee-jerk declared it to be “no ‘Fargo’,” never minding that it clearly wasn’t trying to be.
As someone who was already a pretty big Coen freak (not to mention a massive Jeff Bridges fan), I was at “Lebowski” for an afternoon showing that very first day. My buddy Josh and I settled in and laughed ourselves silly. Its charms instantly worked on both of us and a few months later when the film hit laserdisc (yes, laserdisc), I immediately added it to my collection and many, many viewings were had. Times change as do perceptions of movies, and as the years ticked by, the love for “Lebowski” grew and grew. No less than Roger Ebert even gave the film an extra star (up to four from his initial three) when he added it to his ongoing series called The Great Movies.
Sitting down for a late night viewing the evening of the anniversary, alongside a Late Nite Grape Chew from Ayo, I went in not expecting much, mostly because I’ve seen the film so many times, I know it inside and out, and its dialogue practically verbatim. Surely there were no surprises left in this film? Maybe it was the chew, maybe it was 25 years, maybe, just maybe, it’s because it’s such damn fine cinema, but I ended up having as much fun and laughing almost as hard as I did 25 years prior on that gorgeous spring afternoon. I was reminded why “The Big Lebowski” has meant so much to so many who’ve experienced the unbridled joy of watching it. For a goofy, meandering comedy, it is powerful entertainment. It is difficult to call it the Coens’ best when there is so much fierce competition throughout their nearly flawless filmography…but is it perhaps the best stoner film of all time?
Let’s start with the Dude, who is not necessarily cinema’s greatest stoner, mostly because he spends just as much time drinking White Russians as he does rolling joints. Cinema’s greatest stoner needs to devote himself to cannabis only. That said, the Dude is most definitely not a drunk, and he handles himself very much like a consummate stoner. The way he ambles through life being very Dude-like, taking the hits as they come, mostly only ever really being flustered by the words and actions of his best friend Walter, who seemingly alone has the power to get under his skin (we all know someone like this). I’d also take a point away for him being such a shiftless layabout, which is a stoner image I’m not a big fan of seeing perpetuated. However, that classic stoner attitude is integral to the workings of this film, and it plays beautifully here. Even if the Dude isn’t the greatest cinematic stoner, he is most certainly one of the most memorable, and that is due in no small part to myriad brilliant decisions Jeff Bridges made while bringing him to life.
The film has a compartmentalized, almost sketch-like structure: Dude’s apartment is invaded by two thugs; Dude, Walter and Donny go bowling; Brant gives Dude a tour of the big Lebowski’s digs; Dude meets the big Lebowski; and so forth and so on. When the movie came out, this loose, rambling quality was criticized (though it’s inherent in its detective story roots, fare like “The Big Sleep”). Time has been kind to this aspect of the film, and for the stoner viewer, it’s like gold. You can zone out when watching “Lebowski,” and get back on track by the next scene. Since the film is virtually plotless, there’s no real chance of getting lost and there’s always an on ramp back to the proceedings. For this viewer, who has been too high and as a result gotten lost in countless movies, this is perhaps the film’s strongest quality when considering it for the greatest stoner film of all time.
Or perhaps there is every chance of getting lost…just in a different way. “Lebowski” is a little universe that’s actually very easy to lose yourself in. This funny, surprising world is populated by eccentric, unforgettable characters, each played with such gusto and commitment it’s as though the actors are dining on the screenplay. On the most recent viewing, I marveled especially hard at John Goodman, who is an unstoppable force of nature here, and certainly never more so than when he smashes up a brand-new sports car with a tire iron. Even the players who only show up for one or two scenes demand attention: Jon Polito as a goofy private eye; Ben Gazzara as smut peddler Jackie Treehorn; David Thewlis making everything out of nothing as the video artist Knox Harrington. Sam freaking Elliott. JOHN TURTURRO. The list can go on so long that I failed to include Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Visually and sonically, “Lebowski” offers up one treat after another, including but certainly not limited to its opening sequence which comically tracks a tumbling tumbleweed (along with the Sons of the Pioneers and Elliott’s narration) across the Los Angeles landscape and then into a Ralph’s where we first meet the Dude, which is followed by gorgeously shot opening credits fetishizing the inner workings of the bowling alley. The two elaborate hallucinatory music videos sequences set to Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me” and “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition will surely hypnotize any baked viewer. There are countless sight and sound gags the Coens dish up here, which are far too numerous to list. “The Big Lebowski” is a thrill to look at and listen to.
Much of what’s been discussed here doesn’t just make “Lebowski” a great stoner movie, it makes it a great movie, period. And in order to be the best stoner movie, a movie has to already be a great movie on its own. There are other movies that would be in contention for the title. “Dazed and Confused” should certainly be a candidate. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” which Jeff Spicoli is arguably the beating heart of, is worthy of consideration. The original “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” is a more modern classic. But few movies – let alone stoner movies – are imbued with the same sort of seismic talent both in front of and behind the camera as “Lebowski.” At least for the time being, Cannabinthusiast is willing to declare “The Big Lebowski” The Greatest Stoner Movie of All Time.