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‘The Big Lebowski’ Turns 20, But Why Are People Still Obsessed with the Coen Brothers’ Super Chill Classic?

After two decades, the Dude endures. But is he worth the hype?

The Big Lebowski

“The Big Lebowski”

Gramercy Pictures

On March 6, 1998, a little movie called “The Big Lebowski” opened in half-empty theaters across the country, and anyone expecting the Coen brothers to get serious for their follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Fargo” was in for a very chill surprise. A dopey but profound slacker noir about a guy — a conscientious objector to all human conflict — whose quest to avenge a soiled rug unravels into a wild goose chase involving all sorts of inherent vice, “The Big Lebowski” may not have been much of a hit at the box office, but it took on a life of its own after that.

Propelled by the tao of the Dude and propped up by a wide variety of memorable supporting performances (including Philip Seymour Hoffman as a millionaire’s lackey, John Turturro as a pedophile bowler named Jesus, and John Goodman as a complicated Vietnam vet with a hair-trigger temper), the movie has since become one of the biggest cult classics we have. Not only has its poster joined the likes of “Animal House” and “Scarface” as a universal symbol for college dorms, the film has also sparked its own festival, and even inspired its own religion.

And so, on this most auspicious of days, three IndieWire staffers — one obsessive “Lebowski” fan and two nonbelievers — have gotten together to hash out a cinematic milestone. We may not all agree with each other, but as one wise man once said: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

Michael Nordine, Weekend Editor: It may just be, like, my opinion, man, but “The Big Lebowski” is the rare cult classic that might actually be underrated. Though widely beloved, it’s also often passed off as a hangout movie or a mere tribute to the slacker lifestyle. I think it’d more accurate to say that, like much of the Coen Brothers’ work, it’s meant to be enjoyed on a granular level: the self-referential callbacks, the wordplay, the melding of noir conventions with an utterly inconsequential plot. I’m a two-time Lebowski Fest attendee who genuinely finds the movie funnier every time I watch it — a brief bit of dialogue will stick out to me in a way it never has before, with “Who am I? I’m a fucking veteran, that’s who I am” being the latest — and I still find it incredible that they were able to pack to so much into this.

Sam Elliott

“The Big Lebowski”

Gramercy Pictures

I don’t begrudge anyone who doesn’t feel the same way, because asking anyone to watch something multiple times to truly get it, man is both obnoxious and a losing proposition, but I am curious whether the two of you saw it once or twice and decided to move on with your lives or if you’ve actually revisited it to see if the weirdos like me are on to something. For me — and, I suspect, most other devotees — a lot of the joy really does lie in compulsively quoting the film as it goes and picking up new details.

David Ehrlich, Senior Film Critic: A two-time Lebowski Fest attendee? How much can that event possibly change from one year to the next?

For me — and I take no pride or pleasure in being so contrarian about this — “The Big Lebowski” is the Coen brothers movie that The Haters always accuse my favorite Coen brothers movies of being. To this day, it still strikes me as an empty collection of character tics and splashy performances that have been jumbled together into a colorful (but frustratingly classical) neo-noir, a self-amused film in which everything is so delightfully off-kilter that I can never really find my balance or any reason to care.

Maybe the thing that really rubs me the wrong way about it is that I can’t put my finger on why I find the whole experience so boring; it becomes more of a mystery with every new Coen brothers film that I fall in love with, especially when they repurpose old “Lebowski” bits in ways that I suddenly adore (I could watch the mermaid musical from “Hail, Caesar!” a thousand times, but — for all of its incredible art direction — I’m still bored to tears by the bowling pin dream sequence in “The Big Lebowski”). Or maybe it’s just that I’m too much of an anxious head case to appreciate the Dude-ness of it all, or see his emminent chillness as a helpful lens through which to look back at the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush’s America or whatever. I mean, I know a rug isn’t just a rug, I’m just not convinced it tied the room together.

Of course, it’s hard to dislike this movie with much of a passion, because — as Nordine suggested — to actively hate on “The Big Lebowski” is to completely miss its point. At the same time, I continue to struggle with the cognitive dissonance of this becoming their most popular film, that this is the one that holds the place of honor in dorm rooms across the country, that this is the one that inspired its own religion. Why not Llewyn-fest? Why not a convention that gets together and celebrates how “A Serious Man” helped make sense of the religion that I’ve already got?

Kate, do you think I can be helped, or are some people just not born to be on the Dude’s wavelength?

Kate Erbland, Film Editor: First of all, if we’re planning a Llewyn-fest, consider me the first one in line. To answer Dude Nordine’s query, I have ventured into Lebowski-land on multiple occasions, both thanks to in-home viewings and a double-feature in which it was the first screening (I can’t remember the second title, so that’s not great), but I think the issue isn’t in the number of viewings, but the timing.

I came to “Lebowski” late. By the time I finally got the chance to be inducted into the special club of Dude fans, my friends had already been sterling members for years. There’s nothing quite like watching a movie that everyone else in the room has seen multiple times, loves, has memorized, loves, etc. etc. That was my experience with “The Big Lebowski” the first time I watched, White Russian in hand. I didn’t hate it — and I still don’t, I think I really do appreciate its weirdness more than anything — but I didn’t get it.

John Turturo in "The Big Lebowski"

“The Big Lebowski”


Mike’s right — asking someone to watch anything a number of times to be able to like, really tune into it, man, is a big ask. I certainly do like the film the more times I see it, but I think perhaps my Coen interest runs elsewhere, to the darker stuff, mainly. Still, it’s hard to begrudge any film that puts Julianne Moore on such a wacky pedestal.

Michael Nordine: You’re being very un-Dude, David and Kater. Still, I see your point: the bowling-pin dream might be the only scene of the film that I don’t love, and I can see how watching the movie with a group of people who are already obsessed could be alienating rather than endearing. We live in a time when the very idea of fandom has taken on complex, often toxic implications — the Szechuan Sauce debacle certainly didn’t make me more inclined to finally check out “Rick and Morty,” and I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that fans of dueling comic-book universes seem to hate each other so much — which is why I’m glad that a.) “The Big Lebowski” came about long before social media and b.) those who sing its praises tend to do so in a much more Zen fashion than, say, “Doctor Who” fanatics.

The Big Lebowski

“The Big Lebowski”

Gramercy Pictures

This back-and-forth has been enlightening, though, for the way it reveals “The Big Lebowski” as, if not quite a love-it-or-hate-it affair, then at least one that hinges on the experience of watching the film as much as the film itself — so much so, in fact, that it’s a little strange that it hasn’t become a midnight-movie staple à la “Rocky Horror” or “The Room.” I’m always a little hesitant to show it to people for the first time, because the intense enthusiasm people have for it has long been about more than just what’s onscreen. There’s nothing quite like pouring some White Russians (still my preferred cocktail, not coincidentally) and enjoying this endlessly quotable movie with friends for the umpteenth time.

David Ehrlich: Michael, I appreciate your patience with us heathens, and the fact that you didn’t just leave it at “David and Kate, sooner or later you’re going to have to face the fact that you’re goddamn morons.” I also appreciate the fact that you just raised a question that makes the whole exercise of celebrating this movie to death a little bit more interesting… do you think — in this dark age of social media shit-fits — that it would even be possible for a new movie to come along and collect the kind of pure, pacifistic following that “The Big Lebowski” managed to build for itself before the world went mental? And if so, can we all agree that “Paddington 2” is that movie?

Michael Nordine: I was going to respond to your query with a “no, absolutely not, because every good thing immediately gets destroyed by the Film Twitter discourse” until you mentioned “Paddington 2,” which is so pure and wholesome that it somehow managed to escape that fate. “The Big Lebowski” being released today rather than 20 years ago would result in the same praise/backlash/meme cycle that greets every other hotly debated film, which would make it exceptionally difficult to watch it in the right frame of mind.

Just thinking about it makes me want a White Russian to calm my nerves. Fuck it, dudes. Let’s go bowling.

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