Twenty years ago today, audiences sat in theaters to witness The Big Lebowski, the first Coen Brothers film after Fargo, which had propelled the auteur duo into mainstream consciousness. The lights go down, the reel starts to play on what promises to be a screwball stoner comedy that does to California what Fargo did for Minnesota, and we're greeted by … a voiceover from Sam Elliott as a tumbleweed blows across the city of Los Angeles. It's a bizarre juxtaposition, one that melds the sensibilities of noir voiceover with the cultural pastiche of Westerns, set against the backdrop of the town that developed those genres for the screen. But what exactly does that mean to this story in particular, which follows a stoner wrapped up in circumstances larger than himself? Well… nothing, really. And that commitment to faux meaninglessness is the film's brilliance.
Following from that opening monologue (which acts as only one of three instances of voiceover narration in the whole film), we become embroiled in a plot of neo noir intrigue filtered through the lens of the most incompetent detective imaginable. Serving only his own ends of getting compensation for his micturated-upon rug, Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski becomes ensnared in a plot where he meets a wheelchair-bound millionaire, a trophy wife, a private dick, a punk teenager, and feminist artists who mean nothing to him personally yet still hold the keys to the receipt of a new rug and monetary compensation beyond any he's ever dreamed before. What ultimately does matter to him are the people associated with his bowling league, his friends Walter and Donny—who seem to actually be the only ones doing any bowling—and the various competitors who threaten their standings in league play. But these are small stakes compared to the lives and money at play in the grander mystery, so why does the film insist on making The Dude's journey one for which he has no personal investment?
In The Dude's quest to receive compensation for his rug, we are introduced to a group of nihilists that exist in the background of a plot of supposed kidnapping and secret embezzlement. To the prospect of nihilism, The Dude says "Sounds exhausting," as a drunkenly passed out nihilist floats in a palatial swimming pool. Nihilism is then later derided as worse than Nazism, with Walter proclaiming "Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism. At least it's an ethos." However, what seems like a passing series of jokes is actually the key to unraveling The Big Lebowski's bizarre structure, or rather, it's intentional lack of one.
There are numerous motifs that run through The Big Lebowski, alluding to deeper meanings. Some are intentional red herrings for the mystery plot, such as the existence of multiple "ringers" full of fake cash or the recurrence of pinky toes with green nail polish, but there are numerous other repeated allusions that portend to have greater significance. Various references to the Vietnam War, Saddam Hussein, giant scissors, and The Eagles pepper a plot that draws explicit parallels to noir classic The Big Sleep, and all of it adds up to… pretty much nothing. The grand conspiracy of the narrative isn't that The Dude needs to solve some mystery but has been merely acting as a patsy for a corrupt businessman to steal money from his own charity. So the bums lose, and for all the mental gymnastics one goes through there isn't any meaning to be derived from a burnout and his buddies driving around Los Angeles pretending to be detectives.
This seems like a pretty defeated view of the world, as those of us without agency are left to the whims of those who do and our pursuit of personal betterment is subject to forces far beyond our direct control. The Big Lebowski is an exercise in pointlessness, wherein the nihilists are right and The Dude is left without a rug and with an increasingly destroyed car for his trouble. The direct counterpoint to this is Walter, whose stringent adherence to arbitrary yet absolute rules are more often than not the cause of The Dude's woes, rather than the saving order against a chaotic world. But if the film is so bleak, why has it endured as a cult comedy staple for two decades? Do the tangential diversions and meme-worthy White Russians make for a film that speaks only superficially to an audience of bowling-obsessed niche fans?
Not quite. The nihilists may be right about the meaninglessness of the universe, but they don't actually embrace their own lack of an ethos. In the final confrontation between the bowlers and the nihilists, the nihilists want "ze money," one of them complaining that his girlfriend had to cut off her toe. "Who's the fucking nihilist here!" Walter proclaims, and he's right in questioning their lack of a lack of convictions. Clearly the "nihilists" want more than they have, meaning that they care about more than they say and refuse to admit it. What makes them un-nihilist is their ambition, and the film's greatest tragedy comes to play in the loss of its true patron saint of nihilism: Donny.
Donny is largely a tertiary character to The Dude's struggles, but he is ever present, seeming only to care about the game of bowling and spending time with his friends. He doesn't even really care about the particulars of The Dude's or Walter's lives, popping in and out of conversation without context or understanding, only concerned about their emotional well-being even as Walter tells him he's out of his element. Donny "cares," but only so much as he's living within the narrow constraints he's carved for himself that make him happy. His ambitions are small, so small that he's achieved a sort of clueless zen that endears him to others but doesn't shine a light on him as a primary actor.
As The Dude and Walter go to the beachside cliff for Donny's Folgers can eulogy, Walter spouts off a load of nonsense that may or may not be true about their friend—we're never given enough context about Donny to find out—before spiraling out of control to go on another rant about Vietnam. The ashes are released, The Dude gets a face full of dead Theodore Donald Kerabatsos, and in an expression of the pointless futility of everything, The Dude screams "What does anything have to do with Vietnam?" Indeed, what did this experience teach them, and what did it leave them with beside the loss of their friend?
The final scene of the film shows The Dude about to bowl in the much-maligned league tournament, speaking with Sam Elliott, breaking the fourth wall to visit our protagonist with his golden voice. And yet, in spite of everything The Dude has lost, he's happy. "The Dude abides." He has embraced the pointlessness of his experience and is moving on. He has experienced tragedy, but the only way forward is to enjoy what he has, and if he's learned anything, it's that karma doesn't exist, and fairness is only what we carve out of the world. There will still be problems in The Dude's life—there is, after all, a little Lebowski on the way—but those problems are worth worrying about only as they arrive, and The Dude is content to only care about his narrow scope of influence. That’s the wisdom he gleaned from Donny and the cautionary lesson he pulled from the faux nihilists. So long as he can enjoy an oat soda and a jay, and no one threatens to cut off his Johnson, The Dude is going to be happy and content not giving a good god damn about anything. Some might say that's an Eastern thing: far from it.