The Big Lebowski
The Big Lebowski
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Joel Coen
Ethan Coen (Uncredited)
Produced by Ethan Coen
Joel Coen (Uncredited)
Written by Ethan Coen
Narrated by Sam Elliott Starring Jeff Bridges
Music by Carter Burwell Cinematography Roger Deakins Editing by Tricia Cooke
Studio Working Title Films
Bitter Creek Productions Inc
Polygram Filmed Entertainment
Distributed by PolyGram Filmed Entertainment
Release date(s) March 6, 1998 Running time 119 minutes Country United Kingdom
Language English Budget US$15 million Box office US$27,739,163 
The Big Lebowski is a 1998 comedy film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Jeff Bridges stars as Jeff Lebowski, an unemployed Los Angeles slacker and avid bowler, who is referred to (and also refers to himself) as "The Dude". After a case of mistaken identity, The Dude is introduced to a millionaire also named Jeffrey Lebowski. When the millionaire Lebowski's trophy wife is later kidnapped, he commissions The Dude to deliver the ransom to secure her release. The plan goes awry when The Dude's friend Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) schemes to keep the full ransom. Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Huddleston, Julianne Moore, Tara Reid, and John Turturro star in the film, which is narrated by a cowboy known only as "Stranger," played by Sam Elliott.
The film is loosely based on Raymond Chandler's novel, The Big Sleep. The original score was composed by Carter Burwell, a longtime collaborator of the Coen Brothers. The Big Lebowski was a disappointment at the U.S. box office and received mixed reviews at the time of its release. Reviews have trended towards the positive over time, and the film has become a cult favorite, noted for its idiosyncratic characters, dream sequences, unconventional dialogue, and eclectic soundtrack.
Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski returns home only to be roughed up by two thugs claiming to be collecting money that Lebowski's wife owes a man named Jackie Treehorn. After beating him and urinating on his rug, they realize they are looking for a different person with the same name, and they leave. At the instigation of his friend and bowling teammate Walter Sobchak (Goodman), The Dude decides to seek compensation for the rug from the other Jeffrey Lebowski. The next day, the titular "Big" Lebowski, a wheelchair-bound millionaire, refuses The Dude's request. The Dude meets Bunny Lebowski (Reid), the Big Lebowski's nymphomaniac trophy wife, while leaving the premises with a rug taken from the mansion.
Days later, the Big Lebowski contacts The Dude, revealing that Bunny has been kidnapped. He asks The Dude to act as a courier for the million-dollar ransom because The Dude will be able to confirm whether or not the kidnappers were the same thugs. Later, a different set of thugs enter The Dude's apartment, knock him unconscious, and steal his new rug. When Bunny's kidnappers call to arrange the ransom exchange, Walter tries to convince The Dude to keep the money and give the kidnappers a "ringer" suitcase filled with his dirty underwear. The kidnappers escape with the ringer, and The Dude and Walter are left with the million-dollar ransom. Later that night, The Dude's car is stolen, along with the briefcase filled with money. The Dude receives a message from the Big Lebowski's daughter, Maude, who admits to hiring the criminals who knocked him unconscious. The Dude visits her at her art studio, and she reveals that Bunny is a porn starlet working for Jackie Treehorn. She agrees with The Dude's suspicion that Bunny kidnapped herself and asks The Dude to recover the ransom, as it was illegally withdrawn by her father.
The Big Lebowski angrily confronts The Dude over his failure to hand over the money, and hands The Dude an envelope sent to him by the kidnappers which contains a severed toe, presumably Bunny's. The Dude later receives a message that his car has been found. Mid-message, three German nihilists invade the Dude's apartment, identifying themselves as the kidnappers. They interrogate and threaten him for the ransom money. The Dude returns to Maude's studio, where she identifies the German nihilists as Bunny's friends. The Dude picks up his car from the police, and he and Walter track down the supposed thief, a teenager named Larry Sellers. Their confrontation with Larry is unsuccessful, and the Dude and Walter leave without getting any money or information.
Jackie Treehorn's thugs return to The Dude's apartment to bring him to Treehorn's beach house in Malibu. Treehorn inquires about the whereabouts of Bunny, and the money, offering him a cut of any funds recovered. Treehorn then drugs The Dude's drink and The Dude passes out. After a surreal dream sequence blending the themes of bowling, the Persian Gulf War, Maude’s “vaginal” art, and the nihilists, The Dude wakes up in a police car and is then placed in front of the police chief of Malibu. The police chief physically assaults The Dude and warns him not to return to Malibu. After a cab ride home, The Dude is greeted by Maude Lebowski, who seduces him. During post-coital conversation with Maude, The Dude learns that she hopes to conceive a child with him but wants him to have no hand in the child's upbringing. He also finds out that, despite appearances, her father has no money of his own. Maude's late mother was the rich one, and she left her money exclusively to the family charity. In a flash, The Dude unravels the whole scheme: when the Big Lebowski heard that Bunny was kidnapped, he used it as a pretense for an embezzlement scheme, in which he withdrew the ransom money from the family charity. He kept it for himself, gave an empty briefcase to The Dude (who would be the fall guy on whom he pinned the theft), and was content to let the kidnappers kill Bunny.
Meanwhile, it is now clear that the kidnapping was itself a ruse: while Bunny took an unannounced trip, the nihilists (her friends) alleged a kidnapping in order to get money from her husband. The Dude and Walter arrive at the Big Lebowski residence, finding Bunny back at home from her trip. They confront the Big Lebowski with their version of the events. The affair apparently over, The Dude and his bowling teammates are once again confronted by the nihilists, who have set the Dude's car on fire. They once again demand the million dollars. After telling the nihilists what they knew, the nihilists demand all the money in their pockets. Walter responds by biting one nihilist's ear off, throwing a bowling ball at another's ribs, and knocking the final nihilist unconscious with their portable radio. However, in the aftermath, Donny has a heart attack and dies.
Walter and The Dude go to a cliff overlooking a beach to scatter Donny's ashes. After an informal eulogy which Walter turns into a tribute to the Vietnam War and accidentally covers The Dude with Donny's ashes, Walter suggests, "Fuck it, Dude. Let's go bowling." The movie ends with closing comments from "The Stranger" at the bar of the bowling alley, who hints that Maude may be pregnant with a "little Lebowski."
- Jeff Bridges as Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski, a single, unemployed slacker living in Venice, California, who enjoys marijuana, White Russians, and bowling. Bridges had heard or was told by the Coen brothers that they had written a screenplay for him. The Dude is mostly inspired by Jeff Dowd, a member of the anti-war radical group the Seattle Liberation Front (The Dude tells Maude Lebowski during the film that he was one of the Seattle Seven, who were members of the SLF), and a friend of the Coen brothers, Pete Exline, a Vietnam War veteran, who actually found a twelve-year old's homework in his stolen car.
- John Goodman as Walter Sobchak, a Vietnam veteran, The Dude's best friend, and bowling teammate. Walter places the rules of bowling second in reverence only to the rules of his religion, Judaism, as evidenced by his strict stance against "rolling" on Shabbos. He has a violent temper, and is given to pulling out a handgun (or crowbar) in order to settle disputes. He says the Gulf War was all about oil and claims to have dabbled in pacifism. He constantly mentions Vietnam in conversations, much to the annoyance of The Dude. Walter was based, in part, on director John Milius.
- Steve Buscemi as Theodore Donald "Donny" Kerabatsos, a member of Walter and The Dude's bowling team. Naïve and good-natured, Donny is an avid bowler and frequently interrupts Walter's diatribes to inquire about the parts of the story he missed or did not understand, provoking Walter's frequently repeated response, "Shut the fuck up, Donny!" This line is a reference to Fargo, the Coen brothers' previous film, in which Buscemi's character was constantly talking.
- David Huddleston as Jeffrey Lebowski, the "Big" Lebowski of the movie's title, is a wheelchair-bound (he lost the use of his legs in the Korean War) multi-millionaire who is married to Bunny and is Maude's father by his late wife. He refers to The Dude dismissively as "a bum" and a "deadbeat." Although he characterizes himself as highly successful and accomplished, it is revealed by Maude that he is simply “allowed” to run some of the philanthropic efforts of her mother’s estate.
- Julianne Moore as Maude Lebowski, a feminist and an avant-garde artist whose work "has been commended as being strongly vaginal". She introduced Bunny to Uli Kunkel. She beds The Dude solely to conceive a child, and wants nothing else to do with him.
- Tara Reid as Bunny Lebowski, the Big Lebowski's young "trophy wife". Born Fawn Knutsen, she ran away from the family farm outside Moorhead, Minnesota and soon found herself making pornographic videos under the name "Bunny La Joya". According to Reid, Charlize Theron tried out for the role.
- Philip Seymour Hoffman as Brandt, the Big Lebowski's sycophant, who plays mediator between the two Lebowskis.
- Sam Elliott as The Stranger, the narrator, who sees the story unfold from a third-party perspective. His narration is marked by a thick, laid-back Texas accent. He is seen in the bar of the bowling alley, and converses directly with The Dude on two occasions. He expresses disapproval of The Dude's use of profanity and laziness, and adds the qualifier "parts of it anyway" when concluding that he enjoyed the film.
- Ben Gazzara as Jackie Treehorn, a wealthy pornographer and loan shark, who lives in Malibu, and employs the two thugs who assault The Dude at the beginning of the film. Bunny owes him a large sum of money.
- Peter Stormare, Torsten Voges, and Flea play a group of nihilists, (Uli Kunkel, Franz, and Dieter, respectively). They are German musicians (Kunkel, as "Karl Hungus", appeared in a porn film with Bunny), who, along with Kunkel's girlfriend (Aimee Mann), pretend to be the ones who kidnapped Bunny. The character of Uli originated on the set of Fargo between Ethan Coen and Stormare, who often spoke in a mock German accent.
- John Turturro as Jesus Quintana, an opponent of The Dude's team in the bowling league semifinals. A Latino North Hollywood resident who speaks with a thick Cuban American accent, and often refers to himself in the third person, insisting on the English pronunciation of his name rather than the Spanish. "The Jesus", as he refers to himself, is a "pederast" (according to Walter) who did six months in Chino for exposing himself to an 8-year old. Turturro originally thought that he was going to have a bigger role in the film but when he read the script, he realized that it was much smaller. However, the Coen brothers let him come up with a lot of his own ideas for the character, like shining the bowling ball and the scene where he dances backwards, which he says was inspired by Muhammad Ali.
- Minor characters
- Jon Polito as Da Fino, a private investigator hired by Bunny's parents, the Knutsens, to entice their daughter back home. He mistakes The Dude for a "brother shamus."
- David Thewlis as Knox Harrington, the video artist
- Mark Pellegrino as Treehorn's blond thug
- Jimmie Dale Gilmore as Smokey
- Jack Kehler as Marty, The Dude's landlord
- Leon Russom as Kohl, Malibu police chief
- Asia Carrera (uncredited) as the actress who co-starred with Bunny in the pornographic movie "Logjammin"
The Dude is mostly inspired by Jeff Dowd, a man the Coen brothers met while they were trying to find distribution for the feature film, Blood Simple. Dowd had been a member of the Seattle Seven, liked to drink White Russians, and was known as "The Dude." The Dude was also partly based on a friend of the Coen brothers, Peter Exline (now a member of the faculty at USC's School of Cinematic Arts), a Vietnam War veteran who reportedly lived in a dump of an apartment and was proud of a little rug that "tied the room together." Exline knew Barry Sonnenfeld from New York University and Sonnenfeld introduced Exline to the Coen brothers while they were trying to raise money for Blood Simple. Exline became friends with the Coens and, in 1989, told them all kinds of stories from his own life, including ones about his actor-writer friend Lewis Abernathy (one of the inspirations for Walter), a fellow Vietnam vet who later became a private investigator and helped him track down and confront a high school kid who stole his car. As in the film, Exline's car was impounded by the Los Angeles Police Department and Abernathy found an 8th grader's homework under the passenger seat. Exline also belonged to an amateur softball league but the Coens changed it to bowling in the movie because "it's a very social sport where you can sit around and drink and smoke while engaging in inane conversation," Ethan said in an interview. The Coens met filmmaker John Milius when they were in Los Angeles making Barton Fink and incorporated his love of guns and the military into the character of Walter.
According to Julianne Moore, the character of Maude was based on artist Carolee Schneemann, "who worked naked from a swing," and Yoko Ono. The character of Jesus Quintana was inspired, in part, by a performance the Coens had seen John Turturro give in 1988 at the Public Theater in a play called Mi Puta Vida in which he played a pederast-type character, "so we thought, let's make Turturro a pederast. It'll be something he can really run with", Joel said in an interview.
The film's overall structure was influenced by the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler. Ethan said, "We wanted something that would generate a certain narrative feeling – like a modern Raymond Chandler story, and that's why it had to be set in Los Angeles ... We wanted to have a narrative flow, a story that moves like a Chandler book through different parts of town and different social classes". The use of the Stranger's voiceover also came from Chandler as Joel remarked, "He is a little bit of an audience substitute. In the movie adaptation of Chandler it's the main character that speaks off-screen, but we didn't want to reproduce that though it obviously has echoes. It's as if someone was commenting on the plot from an all-seeing point of view. And at the same time rediscovering the old earthiness of a Mark Twain."
The significance of the bowling culture was, according to Joel, "important in reflecting that period at the end of the Fifties and the beginning of the Sixties. That suited the retro side of the movie, slightly anachronistic, which sent us back to a not-so-far-away era, but one that was well and truly gone nevertheless."
The Big Lebowski was written around the same time as Barton Fink. When the Coen brothers wanted to make it, John Goodman was taping episodes for the Roseanne television program and Jeff Bridges was making the Walter Hill film, Wild Bill. The Coens decided to make Fargo in the meantime. According to Ethan, "the movie was conceived as pivoting around that relationship between the Dude and Walter", which sprang from the scenes between Barton Fink and Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink. They also came up with the idea of setting the film in contemporary L.A. because the people who inspired the story lived in the area. When Pete Exline told them about the homework in a baggie incident, the Coens thought that that was very Raymond Chandler-esque and decided to integrate elements of the author's fiction into their script. Joel Coen cites Robert Altman's contemporary take on Chandler with The Long Goodbye as a primary influence on their film in the sense that The Big Lebowski "is just kind of informed by Chandler around the edges". When they started writing the script, the Coens wrote only 40 pages and then let it sit for a while before finishing it. This is a normal writing process for them, because they often "encounter a problem at a certain stage, we pass to another project, then we come back to the first script. That way we've already accumulated pieces for several future movies". In order to liven up a scene that they thought was too heavy on exposition, they added an "effete art-world hanger-on", known as Knox Harrington, late in the screenwriting process. In the original script, the Dude's car was a Chrysler LeBaron, as Dowd once owned, but that car was not big enough to fit John Goodman so the Coens changed it to a Ford Torino.
PolyGram and Working Title Films, who had funded Fargo, backed The Big Lebowski with a budget of $15 million. In casting the film, Joel remarked, "we tend to write both for people we know and have worked with, and some parts without knowing who's going to play the role. In The Big Lebowski we did write for John [Goodman] and Steve [Buscemi], but we didn't know who was getting the Jeff Bridges role". In preparation for his role, Bridges met Dowd but actually "drew on myself a lot from back in the Sixties and Seventies. I lived in a little place like that and did drugs, although I think I was a little more creative than the Dude". The actor went into his own closet with the film's wardrobe person and picked out clothes that he had thought the Dude might wear. He wore his character's clothes home because most of them were his own. The actor also adopted the same physicality as Dowd, including the slouching and his ample belly. Originally, Goodman wanted a different kind of beard for Walter but the Coen brothers insisted on the "Gladiator" or what they called the "Chin Strap" and he thought it would go well with his flat-top haircut.
For the film's look, the Coens wanted to avoid the usual retro 1960s clichés like lava lamps, Day-Glo posters, and Grateful Dead music and for it to be "consistent with the whole bowling thing, we wanted to keep the movie pretty bright and poppy", Joel said in an interview. For example, the star motif featured predominantly throughout the movie started with the film's production designer Richard Heinrichs' design for the bowling alley. According to Joel, he "came up with the idea of just laying free-form neon stars on top of it and doing a similar free-form star thing on the interior". This carried over to the film's dream sequences. "Both dream sequences involve star patterns and are about lines radiating to a point. In the first dream sequence, the Dude gets knocked out and you see stars and they all coalesce into the overhead nightscape of L.A. The second dream sequence is an astral environment with a backdrop of stars", remembers Heinrichs. For Jackie Treehorn's Malibu beach house, he was inspired by late 1950s and early 1960s bachelor pad-style furniture. The Coen brothers told Heinrichs that they wanted Treehorn's beach party to be Inca-themed with a "very Hollywood-looking party in which young, oiled-down, fairly aggressive men walk around with appetizers and drinks. So there's a very sacrificial quality to it".
Cinematographer Roger Deakins discussed the look of the film with the Coens during pre-production. They told him that they wanted some parts of the film to have a real and contemporary feeling and other parts, like the dream sequences, to have a very stylized look. Bill and Jacqui Landrum did all of the choreography for the film. For his dance sequence, Jack Kehler went through three three-hour rehearsals. The Coen brothers offered him three to four choices of classical music for him to pick from and he chose Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. At each rehearsal, he went through each phase of the piece.
Actual filming took place over an eleven-week period with location shooting in and around Los Angeles, including all of the bowling sequences at the Hollywood Star Lanes (for three weeks) and the Dude's Busby Berkeley-esque dream sequences in a converted airplane hangar. According to Joel, the only time they ever directed Bridges "was when he would come over at the beginning of each scene and ask, 'Do you think the Dude burned one on the way over?' I'd reply 'Yes' usually, so Jeff would go over in the corner and start rubbing his eyes to get them bloodshot". Julianne Moore was sent the script while working on The Lost World: Jurassic Park. She worked only two weeks on the film, early and late during the production that went from January to April 1997 while Sam Elliott was only on set for two days and did many takes of his final speech.
The scenes in Jackie Treehorn's house were shot in the Sheats Goldstein Residence, designed by John Lautner and built in 1963 in the Hollywood Hills.
Deakins described the look of the fantasy scenes as being very crisp, monochromatic, and highly lit in order to afford greater depth of focus. However, with the Dude's apartment, Deakins said, "it's kind of seedy and the light's pretty nasty" with a grittier look. The visual bridge between these two different looks was how he photographed the night scenes. Instead of adopting the usual blue moonlight or blue street lamp look, he used an orange sodium-light effect. The Coen brothers shot a lot of the film with wide-angle lens because, according to Joel, it made it easier to hold focus for a greater depth and it made camera movements more dynamic.
To achieve the point-of-view of a rolling bowling ball the Coen brothers mounted a camera, "on something like a barbecue spit", according to Ethan, and then dollied it along the lane. The challenge for them was figuring out the relative speeds of the forward motion and the rotating motion. CGI was used to create the vantage point of the thumb hole in the bowling ball.
The Big Lebowski: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack album by Various artists Released February 24, 1998 Genre Rock, classical, jazz, country, folk, pop Length 51:46 Label Mercury Producer T-Bone Burnett, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen Coen Brothers film soundtracks chronology Fargo
The Big Lebowski
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The original score was composed by Carter Burwell, a veteran of all the Coen Brothers' films. While the Coens were writing the screenplay they had Kenny Rogers' "Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was in)", the Gipsy Kings' cover of "Hotel California", and several Creedence Clearwater Revival songs in mind. They asked T-Bone Burnett to pick songs for the soundtrack of the film. They knew that they wanted different genres of music from different times but, as Joel remembers, "T-Bone even came up with some far-out Henry Mancini and Yma Sumac". Burnett was able to secure the rights to the songs by Kenny Rogers and the Gipsy Kings and also added tracks by Captain Beefheart, Moondog and the rights to a relatively obscure Bob Dylan song called "The Man in Me". However, he had a tough time securing the rights to Townes Van Zandt's cover of the Rolling Stones' "Dead Flowers", which plays over the film's closing credits. Former Stones manager Allen Klein owned the rights to the song and wanted $150,000 for it. Burnett convinced Klein to watch an early cut of the film and remembers, "It got to the part where the Dude says, 'I hate the fuckin' Eagles, man!' Klein stands up and says, 'That's it, you can have the song!' That was beautiful". Burnett was going to be credited on the film as "Music Supervisor" but asked his credit to be "Music Archivist" because he "hated the notion of being a supervisor; I wouldn't want anyone to think of me as management".
For Joel, "the original music, as with other elements of the movie, had to echo the retro sounds of the Sixties and early Seventies". Music defines each character. For example, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" by Bob Nolan was chosen for the Stranger at the time the Coens wrote the screenplay, as was "Lujon" by Henry Mancini for Jackie Treehorn. "The German nihilists are accompanied by techno-pop and Jeff Bridges by Creedence. So there's a musical signature for each of them", remarked Ethan in an interview.
- "The Man in Me" – written and performed by Bob Dylan
- "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" – written and performed by Captain Beefheart
- "My Mood Swings" – written by Elvis Costello and Cait O'Riordan; performed by Costello
- "Ataypura" – written by Moises Vivanco; performed by Yma Sumac
- "Traffic Boom" – written and performed by Piero Piccioni
- "I Got It Bad & That Ain't Good" – written by Duke Ellington and Paul Francis Webster; performed by Nina Simone
- "Stamping Ground" – written by Louis T. Hardin; performed by Moondog with orchestra
- "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" – written by Mickey Newbury; performed by Kenny Rogers & The First Edition
- "Walking Song" – written and performed by Meredith Monk
- "Glück das mir verblieb" from Die tote Stadt – written and conducted by Erich Wolfgang Korngold; performed by Ilona Steingruber, Anton Dermota and the Austrian State Radio Orchestra
- "Lujon" – written and performed by Henry Mancini
- "Hotel California" – written by Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Don Felder; performed by The Gipsy Kings
- "Technopop (Wie Glauben)" – written and performed by Carter Burwell. The character Uli Kunkel was in the German electronic band Autobahn, a homage to the 1970s band Kraftwerk. The album cover of their record Nagelbett (nail bed) is a parody of the Kraftwerk album cover for The Man-Machine and the group name Autobahn shares the name of a Kraftwerk song and album. In the lyrics the phrase "We believe in nothing" is repeated with electronic distortion. This is a reference to Autobahn's nihilism in the film.
- "Dead Flowers" – written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards; performed by Townes van Zandt
- Other music used
- "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" – written by Bob Nolan; performed by Sons of the Pioneers
- "Requiem in D Minor: Introitus and Lacrimosa" – written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; performed by The Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir
- "Run Through the Jungle" – written by John Fogerty; performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival
- "Lookin' Out My Back Door" – written by John Fogerty; performed by Creedence Clearwater Revival
- "Behave Yourself" – written by Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Al Jackson, Jr. and Lewie Steinberg; performed by Booker T. & the MG's
- "I Hate You" – written by Gary Burger, David Havlicek, Roger Johnston, Thomas E. Shaw and Larry Spangler; performed by The Monks
- "Gnomus" – composed by Modest Mussorgsky; from Pictures at an Exhibition. Arranged for orchestra by Maurice Ravel.
- "Mucha Muchacha" – written and performed by Juan García Esquivel
- "Piacere Sequence" – written and performed by Teo Usuelli
- "Standing on the Corner" – written by Frank Loesser; performed by Dean Martin
- "Tammy" – written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans; performed by Debbie Reynolds
- "Sounds of the Whale" - unknown recording of a whale song
- "Oye Como Va" – written by Tito Puente; performed by Santana
- "Peaceful Easy Feeling" – written by Jack Tempchin; performed by Eagles
- "Branded Theme Song" – written by Alan Alch and Dominic Frontiere
- "Viva Las Vegas" – written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman; performed by Big Johnson (with Bunny Lebowski) and by Shawn Colvin (closing credits).
- "Dick on a Case" – written and performed by Carter Burwell
Release and critical reception
The Big Lebowski received its world premiere at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival on January 18, 1998 at the 1,300 capacity Eccles Theater. It was also screened at the 1998 Berlin Film Festival before opening in North America on March 6, 1998 in 1,207 theaters. It grossed USD $5.5 million on its opening weekend, grossing US$17 million in the United States, just above its US$15 million budget. The film's worldwide gross outside of the US was $10,300,000, bringing its worldwide gross to $27,739,163.
Many critics and audiences have likened the film to a modern Western, while many others dispute this, or liken it to a crime novel that revolves around mistaken identity plot devices. During its premiere at Sundance, there were reportedly[by whom?] a few walkouts. Peter Howell, in his review for the Toronto Star, wrote, "It's hard to believe that this is the work of a team that won an Oscar last year for the original screenplay of Fargo. There's a large amount of profanity in the movie, which seems a weak attempt to paper over dialogue gaps." Howell revised his opinion in a later review, and more recently stated that "it may just be my favourite Coen Bros. film".
Todd McCarthy in Variety magazine wrote, "One of the film's indisputable triumphs is its soundtrack, which mixes Carter Burwell's original score with classic pop tunes and some fabulous covers." USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and felt that the Dude was "too passive a hero to sustain interest", but that there was "enough startling brilliance here to suggest that, just like the Dude, those smarty-pants Coens will abide."
In his review for the Washington Post, Desson Howe praised the Coens and "their inspired, absurdist taste for weird, peculiar Americana – but a sort of neo-Americana that is entirely invented – the Coens have defined and mastered their own bizarre subgenre. No one does it like them and, it almost goes without saying, no one does it better."
Janet Maslin praised Bridges' performance in her review for The New York Times: "Mr. Bridges finds a role so right for him that he seems never to have been anywhere else. Watch this performance to see shambling executed with nonchalant grace and a seemingly out-to-lunch character played with fine comic flair." Andrew Sarris, in his review for the New York Observer, wrote, "The result is a lot of laughs and a feeling of awe toward the craftsmanship involved. I doubt that there'll be anything else like it the rest of this year." In a five star review for Empire Magazine, Ian Nathan wrote, "For those who delight in the Coens' divinely abstract take on reality, this is pure nirvana" and "In a perfect world all movies would be made by the Coen brothers." Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, describing it as "weirdly engaging"
However, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in the Chicago Reader, "To be sure, The Big Lebowski is packed with show-offy filmmaking and as a result is pretty entertaining. But insofar as it represents a moral position–and the Coens' relative styling of their figures invariably does–it's an elitist one, elevating salt-of-the-earth types like Bridges and Goodman ... over everyone else in the movie." Dave Kehr, in his review for the Daily News, criticized the film's premise as a "tired idea, and it produces an episodic, unstrung film." The Guardian criticized the film as "a bunch of ideas shoveled into a bag and allowed to spill out at random. The film is infuriating, and will win no prizes. But it does have some terrific jokes."
Since its original release, The Big Lebowski has become a cult classic. Steve Palopoli wrote about the film's emerging cult status in July 2002. He first realized that the film had a cult following when he attended a midnight screening in 2000 at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles and witnessed people quoting dialogue from the film to each other. Soon after the article appeared, the programmer for a local midnight film series in Santa Cruz decided to screen The Big Lebowski, and on the first weekend they had to turn away several hundred people. The theater held the film over for six weeks, which had never happened before.
An annual festival, the Lebowski Fest, began in Louisville, Kentucky, United States in 2002 with 150 fans showing up, and has since expanded to several other cities. The Festival's main event each year is a night of unlimited bowling with various contests including costume, trivia, hardest- and farthest-traveled contests. Held over a weekend, events typically include a pre-fest party with bands the night before the bowling event as well as a day-long outdoor party with bands, vendor booths and games. Various celebrities from the film have even attended some of the events, including Jeff Bridges who attended the Los Angeles event. The British equivalent, inspired by Lebowski Fest, is known as The Dude Abides and is held in London.
Dudeism, an online religion devoted largely to spreading the philosophy and lifestyle of the movie's main character was founded in 2005. Also known as The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, the organization has ordained over 130,000 "Dudeist Priests" all over the world via its website.
Entertainment Weekly ranked it 8th on their Funniest Movies of the Past 25 Years list. The film was also ranked #34 on their list of "The Top 50 Cult Films" and ranked #15 on the magazine's "The Cult 25: The Essential Left-Field Movie Hits Since '83" list. In addition, the magazine also ranked The Dude #14 in their "The 100 Greatest Characters of the Last 20 Years" poll. The Big Lebowski was voted as the 10th best film set in Los Angeles in the last 25 years by a group of Los Angeles Times writers and editors with two criteria: "The movie had to communicate some inherent truth about the L.A. experience, and only one film per director was allowed on the list". Empire magazine ranked Walter Sobchak #49 and the Dude #7 in their "The 100 Greatest Movie Characters" poll. Roger Ebert added The Big Lebowski to his list of "Great Movies" in March 2010.
In September 2008, Slate published a revisionist article which viewed The Big Lebowski as a political critique. The centerpiece of this viewpoint was that Walter Sobchak is "a neocon," citing the movie's references to then President George H. W. Bush and the first Gulf War.
John Turturro has suggested a number of times that he would be interested in doing a spin-off movie using his character Jesus Quintana. If the project got off the ground, the Coens would not direct it, but may have a part in writing it.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment released a "Collector's Edition" DVD on October 18, 2005 with extra features that included an "introduction by Mortimer Young", "Jeff Bridges' Photography", "Making of The Big Lebowski", and "Production Notes". In addition, a limited-edition "Achiever's Edition Gift Set" also included The Big Lebowski Bowling Shammy Towel, four Collectible Coasters that included photographs and quotable lines from the movie, and eight Exclusive Photo Cards from Jeff Bridges’ personal collection.
A "10th Anniversary Edition" was released on September 9, 2008 and features all of the extras from the "Collector's Edition" and "The Dude's Life: Strikes and Gutters ... Ups and Downs ... The Dude Abides", theatrical trailer (from the first DVD release), "The Lebowski Fest: An Achiever's Story", "Flying Carpets and Bowling Pin Dreams: The Dream Sequences of the Dude", "Interactive Map", "Jeff Bridges Photo Book",and a "Photo Gallery". There are both a standard release and a Limited Edition which features "Bowling Ball Packaging" and is individually numbered.
On August 16, 2011 Universal Pictures released The Big Lebowski on Blu-ray. The limited-edition package includes a Jeff Bridges photo book, a ten-years-on retrospective, and an in-depth look at the annual Lebowski Fest.
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