“Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost.” —The Big Lebowski, The Big Lebowski
All “The Dude” wanted was his rug back. It really tied the room together.
And so when he visits the mansion of the other Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston) — The Big Lebowski, the millionaire, the one with all the honorary degrees and commendations and the key to the city of Pasadena — The Dude is seeking some small measure of justice for a big misunderstanding. A couple of dumb goons had mistaken him for the rich Lebowski and punished him, in true dumb-goon fashion, by urinating on his rug and calling him a loser. Spurred on by his buddy Walter Sobchak, who’s always spoiling for a fight, The Dude believes it’s reasonable that the other Lebowski compensate him for the rug, since the goons intended to come after him. Presumably, this highly successful businessman can afford the courtesy.
(For clarity’s sake, all future mentions of “The Big Lebowski” will be “Lebowski” and “The Dude” will be “The Dude.” I’m into the whole brevity thing, so I’m passing on “El Duderino.”)
The question that The Dude never asks himself, especially after the meeting goes so badly is: Why did Lebowski agree to see him at all? There are two answers to that question, one that’s apparent right away and another that’s revealed as a lotta strands come together in ‘ol Duder’s head:
Lebowski wants to humiliate The Dude, a ‘60s burnout who represents everything a reactionary like him hates about the counterculture rabble-rousers in their generation.
Lebowski doesn’t have any money, in fact, and wants to use The Dude as an inept cover for a million-dollar embezzlement scheme from the family foundation. The meeting is his way of sizing up The Dude as a sap. (Though The Dude slipping off with “any rug in the house” is a good tip-off that he shouldn’t be underestimated.)
The two Lebowskis in The Big Lebowski are carrying a Baby Boomer dispute into the early ‘90s, and it’s no mistake that the Coen brothers have chosen the beginning of the Gulf War as the setting for the film, rather than merely staging it in the present. The two men, a reactionary and a pacifist, have been on opposite sides of the cultural battleground since the ‘60s, and the hostility still lingers, even now that the Reagan Revolution has definitively snuffled out the one launched by the peaceniks. The Dude, the most passive of pacifists, just wants to be left alone. The biggest running joke of The Big Lebowski is that the world won’t let him.
And in the short time before the Lebowskis first meet, the Coens gives us all the information we need to know about The Dude’s past and his current standing as “quite possibly the laziest [man] in Los Angeles County.” He slumps into the grocery store in a ratty bathrobe and jelly sandals. He pays for a small carton of half-and-half with a 69-cent check. The toilet-paper roll in his bathroom is cashed. When reminiscing about his college days with Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Lebowski’s sycophantic personal assistant, he claims to have spent most of his time smoking Thai sticks and “occupying various administration buildings.”
For his part, Lebowski is a variation on the classic Coen brothers archetype: The Man Behind The Desk. Think Michael Lerner as the studio chief in Barton Fink or Paul Newman as the cigar-chomping industrialist in The Hudsucker Proxy or Rabbi Marshak, the third and oldest rabbi, in A Serious Man — all gray-haired sages at the seat of power, whose wisdom is as questionable as it is unquestioned. Their edicts are impetuous and rash — or, in the case of Rabbi Marshak, absent — and made without regard to the people affected. Lebowski, we’ll come to learn later, has no business lecturing The Dude about the value of hard work and achievement, since his story about boot-strapping his way from Korea, where “Chinamen” took his legs, to enormous wealth and influence is a lie. But he relishes the opportunity to put a “deadbeat” like The Dude in his place, because he’s a shameless fraud and it doesn’t seem likely to him that The Dude will ever discover it.
When The Dude finally sits in Lebowski’s office, donning his signature stained V-neck and multi-colored shorts, the meeting becomes an occasion for performative contempt, loaded with the sort of language men like him use to belittle the less fortunate. The Dude is “looking for a handout.” That he’s dodging personal responsibility and finding someone else to blame for his problems. That he should “get a job.” We don’t know yet that all his money is inherited or that his one business venture exposed his ineptitude or that he’s throwing his trophy wife to the wolves in order to pocket a million in embezzled foundation money. He’s a shameless — and in the parlance of our times, Trumpian — charlatan who’s masking a history of failure with a thin patina of success. “Your revolution is over,” he tells The Dude. “Condolences. The bums lost.”
With that line, Lebowski is telling the truth. The Stranger’s opening narration talks about The Dude being “the man for his time and place,” but in many respects, the opposite is true. If “the bums” defined themselves in opposition to the Vietnam War, then the bums did lose, and the Gulf War aspects of The Big Lebowski help make that clear. Protests against Vietnam, much less the deflating result of that particular U.S. invention, in no way stopped future wars from happening under similarly murky rationale. The Dude may have had a voice when he was occupying administration buildings — or when he was part of the Seattle Seven (“that was me and six other guys”) — but time has rendered him irrelevant. That might explain his friendship with Walter, too: In the ‘60s, a peacenik and a Vietnam soldier would have likely been at odds, but they’re now united as relics of a bygone era, no longer part of the culture their actions attempted to shape.
The world belongs now to The Big Lebowski and type-A desk generals like the police chief in Malibu Beach, who hurls invective (and a coffee cup) in the Dude’s face after Jackie Treehorn sets him up. “Treehorn draws a lot of water in this town,” says the chief. “You don’t draw sh*t, Lebowski.” As the Coens’ shaggy-dog plotting finally draws to a close, The Dude gets the consolation of returning to his low-key life of bowling leagues and White Russians, but there’s no evidence his sleuthing has changed anything. He and Walter expose the truth about Lebowski, but justice does not follow. He will keep on being The Big Lebowski, plaques and all. The ransom money is gone, if it ever existed in the first place. And life will keep going on more or less as it did before, without lessons learned or consequences rendered.
As The Stranger notes in the final stretch, “I guess that’s the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself.” The Coens make us laugh to keep from crying.