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The Big Lebowski, which was released 25 years ago this week, has had a stronger afterlife than any film of its era. A stranger one, too. The comedy grossed only $18 million domestically upon its initial release, and was considered a disappointing follow-up to Fargo, the previous film from co-directors Joel and Ethan Coen. But soon it developed an intense cult following. First were the midnight screenings, where fans shouted the dialogue in unison. Then came the annual Lebowski Fest, with unlimited bowling, a costume contest, and plenty of white Russians. There is a religion inspired by the film—Dudeism—with thousands of internet-ordained priests worldwide, as well as two species of spider named after its characters: Anelosimus biglebowski and Anelosimus dude.
It’s clear The Big Lebowski has legs, much of it due to the film’s unrivaled quotability. The stoner comedy/noir/western has an endless reserve of memorable dialogue that can be used like a secret language to identify other “achievers,” as fans of the film refer to themselves (a reference to the “Little Lebowski Urban Achievers,” a group of inner-city youth sponsored by the film’s millionaire villain). Unlike the scripts of Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet, two generational peers of the Coens known for their flashy dialogue, Lebowski’s quotability doesn’t come from sparkling displays of verbosity or well-placed pop cultural references. Instead, its power derives from utter practicality. The Big Lebowski is teeming with lines that demand to be used in normal life. If you get insulted, try responding with, “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” When the worst person you know makes a good point, you can retort, “You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole.” Did a hanger-on just try to butt in on your conversation? “Donny, you’re out of your element!”
The options are endless.
Get hit on unexpectedly? “You mean…coitus?”
Get up-charged at a funeral home? “Just because we’re bereaved doesn’t make us saps!”
Recommending a doctor to a friend? “He’s a good man. And thorough.”
Did the Commanders lose a tough game? “I hate the fucking Eagles, man!”
Need an excuse to get out of a Saturday night invitation? “Shomer Shabbos!”
None of these quotes found their way onto AFI’s 100 Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time, a 2005 poll of film artists, critics, and historians. The Big Lebowski needed time to percolate. Looking at the list, however, it’s not clear it will ever have a shot. Most of the top entries are heavily stylized bits of dialogue, or they represent moments of high drama in our most prestigious and acclaimed films. Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, Casablanca, and The Wizard of Oz are all near the top, asking the question of whether a great quote makes a great film, or the other way around.
The Big Lebowski offers lots of color to lure viewers in—a full roster of weirdos, a labyrinthine plot that visits salacious corners of Los Angeles, and a pair of brilliantly surrealistic dream sequences in which the Coens show what they can do without dialogue. But the real attraction, and the thing that makes its quotations so memorable, is how it engages with life’s banalities. The characters are outlandish, but their common plight is relatable, and their reactions understandable. Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the rich guy’s obsequious manservant, has retreated into himself. Maude (Julianne Moore), a pretentious artist, tries to position herself above it all. Walter (John Goodman) chooses rage. The Dude (Jeff Bridges) just wants his rug back—it’s telling that few of his funniest lines look like anything on the page. When combined with Bridges’ lived-in performance, they speak the universal language of everyday desperation: “What the fuck is with this guy?” “Everything’s a fucking travesty with you!” “Well, that’s your perception.”
The quotes make the man, and the man makes the movie. The Dude has become a deity to some, not just for his bon mots (“How are you gonna keep ’em down on the farm when they’ve seen Karl Hungus?”), but for how deftly he captures the human condition in our time. The Big Lebowski was released just a few years into the wide-open internet era, and a few years before the rupture of 9/11. The combination of the two permanently scrambled our society, hurling all of us into distant, unreachable corners. There are those among us who claim to know the absolute truth about things, but the rest of us are mired in subjective realities. We spend much of our time trying to keep track of, as our hero puts it, “a lot of strands in old Duder’s head.” The Big Lebowski does resolve its central mystery, but its real lesson is to emulate its hero. As he stumbles around Los Angeles, trying to figure out who’s telling the truth and who’s bullshitting him, while only hoping to recover a meager comfort of his own, the Dude becomes an aspirational figure, chill in the face of increasing absurdity, and ever able to express himself in perfectly quotable ways.
In celebration of its 25th anniversary, The Big Lebowski screens at 7:15 and 9:45 p.m. on March 10 and 11; and at 7 p.m. on March 16 at AFI Silver as part of the theater’s AFI Silver After Dark series. silver.afi.com. $8.
And don’t miss our Spring Arts Guide pick: The Big Lebowski Experience IV on April 21 at Pearl Street Warehouse. $15.