Movies are judged by a lot of different measures, but one of the most important measures is the coherence of the plot. Does it make sense? Do the characters fit into the story? If this were the only measure, the Coen brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski (1998) would be a colossal failure. Modeled after the infamously convoluted plot of 1946’s The Big Sleep, The Big Lebowski introduces new characters and story twists in every other scene, and only now that I have seen it a small handful of times am I able to track most of the sprawl. I even decided to spend more time than I’m willing to admit making this character map.
My point is that this movie is convoluted. Yet, its popularity is undeniable. It’s currently ranked 145th on IMDB’s Top 250; fans hold a yearly festival called Lebowski Fest; and critics seem to like it, too. One response, then, would be that the movie’s successes are in the other measures of what makes a good movie. The script is comprised almost entirely of oft-quoted lines, and the characters are unique and colorful in classic Coen style. That feels unfair to the story, though, which—for all of its zaniness—is meticulously constructed, as that character web completely fails to indicate. When viewed in the context of the Coens’ usually tight plots that have the same MacGuffin (a big bag of money), it’s obvious that they’re trying to do something specific with the purposefully convoluted narrative.
There are some obvious answers, like the loving parody of film noir detective stories, revealing the vacuous absurdity of Los Angeles. There’s also the commentary on the effects of war’s pervasiveness on even the biggest hippy pacifists, indicated by The Dude’s (Jeff Bridges) inability to escape conflict and violence in a time of war. If that one seems like a stretch, consider Walter’s (John Goodman) frequent references to Vietnam, or the wartime rhetoric that The Dude borrows from a televised speech by Bush: “This aggression will not stand, man!” There’s also the increasing apathy of previously avid political protesters like The Dude, who twice claims to have drafted the original Port Huron Statement and been a part of the Seattle Seven.
The most obvious answer, though, comes through one of the movie’s most memorable characters, Maude (Julianne Moore). Frequently, in movies where an artist is a central character, you can find a reflection of the artists that created her. Maude’s work actually directly reflects the Coen brothers’ film in terms of the rule-breaking narrative. She creates abstract art that confrontationally challenges normal conventions of various artistic media. She comments that her work is strongly vaginal and makes people uncomfortable; her art studio is full of sexual, abstract pieces featuring dismembered and reconstructed mannequins.
In many ways, Maude’s ambition is to challenge traditional art in order to comment on its implicit values. For Maude, that means deconstructing sexist standards in art and society, as she herself calls herself a feminist who is making yonic artwork that makes people uncomfortable. The Coens are challenging some underlying assumptions and values of the detective story, too. They tackle the way capitalism drives and corrupts everyone, yet only the poor find themselves on the losing end of things. But they also tackle a lot of underlying assumptions about gender in the same way that Maude does, and in this sense she becomes a lens through which the characters and story can be understood.
Maude subverts traditional art by confronting her audience with imagery that values womanhood as much as manhood, and the Coens subvert the detective story by questioning what exactly manhood’s gender equivalent, masculinity, is. The opening narration introduces us to this critical impulse, with a character called The Stranger (Sam Elliot) rambling as he attempts to explain who The Dude is. The Stranger is clearly an incarnation of the Cowboy archetype (The Dude even says as much later on), but he exhibits none of the aspects usually associated with the famously masculine character type. The Cowboy speaks rarely, and directly when he does. The Cowboy is a man of action. But The Stranger can never seem to get his point across, constantly interrupting himself until he’s “lost [his] train of thought.” He also never leaves the bar, where he orders sarsaparillas, which at least one western used to point out a character’s presumed “sissy-ness”.
The other masculine stereotype, Walter, has his own subversive qualities. Although he’s aggressive, outspoken, and even violent—traditionally masculine qualities—he also can’t seem to move past his divorce and past experiences, even carrying around a tiny LA purse dog (it’s not a Pomeranian) while he fails in just about everything he does. Every other character represents some shade of masculinity or the lack thereof: The Dude’s landlord (Jack Kehler) is soft-spoken and performs interpretive dance, obviously mocking his traditionally feminine qualities. Donny (Steve Buscemi) is always shouted out of conversations, undermining his masculinity. The Big Lebowski (David Huddleston) himself can’t handle his failing marriage, and his assistant (Phllip Seymour Hoffman) is dorkier than I was in middle school.
All of these characters become metrics against which we measure and understand our protagonist, The Dude. The Dude is also not exactly a masculine stereotype; he sits around with little to no drive and basically has to experience his life as an object upon whom numerous others act. He also barely seems to be able to speak for himself, constantly lifting phrases from others (“This aggression will not stand, man!”; “Where’s the money, Lebowski?”; “They’ll cut off your johnson!”; even one of his most famous lines, “The Dude abides,” stems from something he heard). Yet, The Dude lives the way he wishes to, finding comfort in the way he defines his own life, which is a trait associated with masculinity. The Dude’s happiness and heroism (well, what’s a hero?) stem from his wanton disregard for what others think.
In a sense, The Dude’s ineffective attempts to take part in the money plot reflect a truth that Maude likely learned years ago: you cannot subvert norms by participating in the games of those with power. Maude uses abstraction to challenge the sexist and male-centered nature of traditional art, and The Dude can express himself by existing outside of a capitalist system, reflected by the numerous groups (even Nihilists, who aren’t supposed to care about anything) that are motivated by money. This is why The Dude’s understanding of Maude changes throughout the film.
This video by Rob Ager has a great breakdown of their first encounter: Maude performs a symbolic reversal of the pornography standard of men ejaculating on women’s face, but Maude does so with paint. She’s asserting her dominance, which terrifies the dude, who later has a nightmare about men chasing him with scissors (clearly expressing some castration anxiety; see the video for a more in depth discussion of this). He’s terrified of her wanton disregard of the gender dynamic in modern society. However, later, they become closer allies and eventually sleep together, reflecting The Dude’s increasing comfort with existing outside of the system. The non-plot, the ridiculously tangled web of events and characters that lacks a traditional sense of cause and effect, does not become something worth participating in. The Dude instead goes back to bowling, experiencing his own lifestyle apart from tradition.
The Coens are clearly interested in masculinity in their film. I’ve discussed much of it so far, but some moments aren’t even as subtle as all that: the title song is “The Man in Me” by Bob Dylan; the Big Lebowski pontificates on what it means “to be a man”; The Stranger tries to explain The Dude by saying some version of “there’s a man” or “he’s a man” seven times in the opening narration. While this is but one lens through which we can view the film, the Coens have clearly constructed their plot and characters around some of these questions, and ended in one place: how to be a man is an asinine question. Answering the question isn’t important; living outside of it is.