Get the Think newsletter.
 / Updated 
By J.C. Johnson

I went to a movie theatre and watched "The Big Lebowski" 20 years ago today. Then and now it boasts very funny dialog, clever visual gags, wonderful cinematography, tunes by Creedence Clearwater Revival, a marmot in a bathtub, Tara Reid at the height of her acting prowess and the Coen Brothers’ characteristic sense of the absurd. It's since spawned internet memes and film buff quote-offs, inspired the public’s thirst for White Russians and engendered a widespread love of abiding.

Much has been made of “Dudeism” and abiding, because a laid-back lifestyle has a certain slacker appeal when embodied by a seemingly carefree and peace-loving shaggy man in a bathrobe. The entire cult appeal of the film rests on the slight-slumped, bathrobe-covered shoulders of the embodiment of Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in, drop out" ethos.

And how The Dude abides: The film implies that he has been abiding for decades, and that his sole ambition is to abide with as little effort as possible. The difficulty is that, 20 years later, there's something decidedly unfunny about the boomer ethos of simply abiding.

The difficulty is that, 20 years later, there's something decidedly unfunny about the boomer ethos of simply abiding.

Forces are, of course, aligned against The Dude and his stated desires and, for a brief few days, he winds up doing a lot — in a skewed version of the quests that took more cynical characters like Jake Gittes in “Chinatown” and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe across Los Angeles looking for truth. "The Big Lebowski," at its core, follows a loose framework similar to those other detective tales, a deliberately shambling and convoluted jigsaw puzzle that finds Jeff Lebowski and friends looking for a replacement rug, a kidnapped wife, a car thief and ransom money.

Still, abiding is The Dude’s goal and it's gotten him to exactly where he wants to be, which isn’t really anywhere at all. On the other hand, his friend Walter steamrolls The Dude into action after misadvised action through his single-minded focus on rules and order. And through the whole series of events, their poor bowling teammate Donny can’t keep up with the conversation, no matter how much he tries.

Still, I can’t decide if Donny is out of his element because he’s not listening close enough to the conversations around him, or if he’s confused because he’s not hearing anything worth listening to.

Image: The Big Lebowski
Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi in "The Big Lebowski" in 1998.Gramercy Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Donny never knows what he’s really wrapped up in, and has no firm ground upon which to form any sort of opinion about the current state of affairs, not because of any of the questions he asks, but because he asks them in the first place. Attempting to figure out what's going on earns him nothing but opprobrium from Walter and, when he's done being berated, the world moves on without his input. He's repeatedly commanded to follow Jake Gittes' old motto and do "as little as possible." Donny might not be very smart, but the truth is, with "smart" guys like The Dude and Walter around, Donny never has much opportunity to get much education. He winds up along for the ride, and then, quite literally, in the wind.

Donny is the one trying to make sense of the senseless and gets mocked for his troubles. Like many readers of Chandler’s "The Big Sleep," Donny tries too hard to figure out what’s going on around him but can’t really figure out how all the fuss around him really ties anything together (unlike The Dude's rug). The reality is that none of the movie (and maybe none of life) really makes a lot of sense.

As much as any Coen brothers movie has a point, perhaps that is the point of "The Big Lebowski." The movie’s deepest joke is that there is danger in trying to make sense out of anything, but it's buried in between the destructive hilarity of Walter's bellicose overreaction to any situation and the somnambulant comfort found in The Dude working hard at keeping his buzz on and doing nothing.

Abiding seemed like a good idea — a safe idea, especially compared to confronting nihilists and shady rich people.

Of course, back in 1998 when the movie was released, the United States had fought only one Iraq conflict. The date September 11 on the 69 cent check that The Dude writes for half-and-half wasn’t more infamous than the amount. Abiding seemed like a good idea — a safe idea, especially compared to confronting nihilists and shady rich people. But the movie never really asks what happens if you don't.

“The Big Lebowski” still abides as a quirky hymn to Los Angeles and the importance of proper floor covering. Yet, The Dude’s goal feels more troubling now because he only winds up (with Walter) exactly back where they started. Donny, however, tried to find out what it all meant, and he’s the only one who doesn't abide.

J.C. Johnson is an archivist and movie buff. He lives in Boston with his wife, two dogs and several Indiana Jones movie posters that really tie the room together.