My memories of first seeing The Big Lebowksi are not yet quite twenty years old. Though released in USA on 6th March 1998, it didn't hit the UK until a few weeks later. So, it was on or about 24th April that my housemate Andy and I, living in Carlisle at the time, went to the city's Warner Village (now Vue) cinema. Both hardcore cinephiles and Coen Brothers fans, our expectations were naturally high, especially following on from the success of their previous effort Fargo, which had won two Oscars and been a critical and commercial hit. The fact that I feel moved to write a blog post about it two decades later tell you that we were not disappointed.
Just a few hours later, we were annoying people at a party who hadn't yet seen the film by quoting lines from the film back and forth at each other, particularly most of Jesus Quintana's dialogue, and "this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass", a line we also employed when leaving the party, as we kicked over a bike belonging to a lad we didn't like for reasons I can't remember.
So I loved Lebowski instantly. It was endlessly quotable, and demanded repeat viewings - in fact, I went back a couple of days later to watch it again, and retain some more of the dialogue to drop into everyday conversation. Many of the actors involved did some of their very best work. Jeff Bridges, having made a career of playing charismatic, handsome but morally ambiguous characters, completely let himself go to play the slobbish, overweight Dude, his fat gut hanging out over his shorts, unkempt beard stained with White Russian. John Goodman, re-teaming with the Coens having worked with them on Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, was allowed to go all out as paranoid, combustible Vietnam veteran Walter Sobchak, pulling a piece out on the lanes and caring for his ex-wife's Pomeranian. Completing the unlikely trio of friends was Steve Buscemi's Donny, the quiet one of the group, about whom we know little beyond him being told to shut the fuck up by Walter, and that he loved bowling and surfing, a fact made clear to us in Walter's clumsy eulogy after Donny has continued Buscemi's tradition of being killed off in Coen Bros' films. Perhaps most instantly memorable of all was another Coens mainstay, John Turturro as Jesus, the hairnet wearing pederast who can fucking roll, man.
But, much as I did love the film, it certainly didn't instantly take on the status of my favourite film. Or even my favourite Coen Bros' film. For a good few years later, I maintained that Fargo was their best work, occasionally arguing the case for Raising Arizona. But, as the film found its true home on DVD (it was considered something of a box office flop, and reviews were lukewarm), it was in this format that, over the course of several years, I grew to appreciate its true genius. There was just something irresistibly compelling about this film, and, during a period on the dole, I fell into a pattern of watching it several times a week, late at night. I came to realise that the lack of enthusiasm from many critics and even some fans was due to the fact that, with so much going on, it was hard to process everything in one sitting, or even several sittings. There's so much great dialogue, so many quotable lines, so many great gestures and facial expressions, that it's hard to keep track of them. A perfect example is the scene where The Dude confronts Da Fino (played by the late Jon Polito). Their inept attempts to square up to each other, and Polito's odd attempts to placate The Dude by making bizarre shapes with his arms, are so funny that one could easily miss the genius 'like an Irish monk?' line.
The fact that it rewarded so many repeat viewings was always its greatest strength. Throughout the script, there is not one line of dialogue, one single utterance, or even facial gesture wasted. Not only does The Big Lebowski reward repeat viewings, repeat viewings are absolutely essential to appreciating the level of its brilliance. I don't know how many dozens of viewings it was before I picked up on the nuances of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of Brandt, lickspittle to the titular 'Big' Jeffrey Lebowski. Witness the scene before The Dude meets his namesake where Brandt is showing a disinterested Dude around the many awards his boss has acquired. Several times he asks The Dude to stop fingering a shoe-shaped plaque. As The Dude has one last touch, the discomforted reaction of Brandt is exquisite. Rarely if ever has a film revealed so much hidden depth that you can watch it literally a hundred times and still find something you'd missed before.
For all the hilarious dialogue, at its core, this is also a film about friendship. These three lonely men, who seemingly have little in common other than their love of bowling, need each other. As unhinged as Walter is, he's the kind of friend you'd always want in your corner when confronted by three nihilists in a dark parking lot. And when he tells The Dude "nobody's gonna cut your dick off, not while I have anything to say about it," you absolutely believe him. As mean as he seems to Donny at times, when Donny suffers at heart attack, Walter cradles him in his arms with genuine love. Even when he makes a mess of scattering Donny's ashes, covering The Dude in the incinerated remains of their friend, The Dude can't stay mad at him for long, eventually accepting the borderline psychotic veteran's embrace.
Only a handful of comedies have stood up to such repeat viewings over the years. The Producers, This Is Spinal Tap, Withnail And I, and The Big Lebowski stand out, with Alpha Papa likely to join them. But The Big Lebowski stands head and shoulders above all of them. But it's not just the greatest comedy of all time, it's the greatest film of all time.
And if you disagree, well, that's just, like, your opinion, maaan.