Fifteen years ago this month, directors Joel and Ethan Coen introduced Americans to a movie about bowling, acid flashbacks and a rug that, above all things, really tied the room together. "The Big Lebowski" starred actor Jeff Bridges as "The Dude." It wasn't a commercial success, and it barely made enough to cover its $15 million budget.
Fast forward to today. The film's become an obsession for thousands of people, and many of them are in L.A. this weekend for "Lebowski Fest." KPCC's Kevin Ferguson reports on the film's transformation from cult classic to L.A. institution.
Loosely based on Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep," "The Big Lebowski" takes place over several days in the life of Jeff Lebowski, better known as The Dude, a Venice burnout with a penchant for white Russians.
I'll try for a synopsis: In an attempt to replace a soiled rug, The Dude and his friend Walter, a chaotic Vietnam vet played by John Goodman, insert themselves into a bizarre feud involving millionaires, porn producers, nihilists and a severed toe.
Shot entirely in and around Los Angeles, it's a movie with so many swear words and devoted fans that even the TV-friendly overdubs have made their way into our hearts:
Walter: "Do you see what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps? This is what happens!"
But for lots of critics, like Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter, "The Big Lebowski" was just a good movie, not amazing. Todd reviewed the movie when it came out in 1998.
"I mean I thought it was a very clever and at times funny Coen brothers film. But I didn't think it was the greatest thing I'd ever seen [or] the best Coen brothers film I ever saw," said McCarthy. "So, you know, I enjoyed it but kind of forgot about it, and I've never seen it again."
The same went for Will Russell, a moviegoer from Louisville:
"I did not dislike it, but I wasn't bowled over by it. I was just kinda confused. I was like, 'Oh, well, that was pretty cool, but I don't know.' I ended up seeing it a couple more times on VHS," said Russell. "On the third time, I just found myself, like, laughing out loud every scene. Suddenly I'd just fallen in love with this film!"
Russell and his friends went on to start Lebowski Fest, a nationwide convention of fans of the film. In cities like New York, Los Angeles, Louisville and London, The Dude's devotees watch the film, go bowling, hold costume contests and, of course: drink white Russians.
Lebowski Fest has also been a gathering place for people involved in the movie: stars like Jeff Bridges to bit players, extras and even the real life Dude himself, Jeff Dowd.
Dowd, better known as The Dude, is a Santa Monica producer who inspired the movie's main character. He's a fixture in the industry and had worked with the Coens before. He shows up to a lot of Lebowski Fests, and when he talks to fans he acknowledges the movie gets a lot right.
The real Dude abides
"Did we drink white Russians for a while? Yeah, I don't know whether it was a month or two months," said Dowd. "Were you drinking the same drink in your senior year of high school as you were in your junior year of high school? I doubt it."
But "The Big Lebowski" has an appeal that goes beyond cult status. Sure, it's inspired costumes and merchandise — tattoos, even — but unlike other cult movies, as the film's grown in popularity, so has its respect among critics and academics. Scott Foundas is Variety's chief film critic:
"A much better analog, in a way, might be to a film like 'Blade Runner,' which largely received negative reviews at the time of its release [and] was not a big performer at the box office," said Foundas. "Thirty years later, people look back and say it was one of the most influential films of all times in so many ways."
For Jeff Dowd, the real Dude, "The Big Lebowski" is all that and more: a philosophy for living, a love song for the weird characters you find around L.A. Perhaps most importantly, though, it unites people.
"The number one choice for a lot of families now at Christmastime — and this is really weird and almost sick — is 'The Big Lebowski,'" said Dowd. "You know, you have a Christmas dinner, there's 30, 40, 50 people there. Twenty people from extended family. And about the time the dinner ends, the dark stuff starts to come out. So we put 'Big Lebowski' [on] now, and instantly, those 20, 30, 50 people start to laugh together."
Say what you will, at least it's an ethos.
Lebowski Fest kicks off Friday, March 22, at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills, followed by a bowling party on Saturday. Click here for more info on the event.