Years ago I heard comedian Jerry Seinfeld talk about friendship. He said (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here) that it often had more to do with proximity than anything else. In other words, Jerry on the show Seinfeld was friends with Kramer pretty much only because he lived across the hall.
The triumvirate of The Dude (née Jeffrey Lebowski), Walter, and Donny in The Big Lebowski seems like that sort of friendship. Bowling buddies who could not possibly be more unalike, they anchor the film (and, in my opinion, generate the most laughs).
The one thing that does seem to bind them (other than a love of bowling) is generation. They are three Baby Boomers. I will not be the first writer to point out that The Dude and Walter represent the extremes of Left and Right Boomer politics, with Donny in the middle, who is constantly shouted over and, even more often, totally disregarded. The Dude protested the Vietnam war, and Walter, a present-day neocon, fought in the war.
We don’t know what Donny did during the war.
“Shut the fuck up, Donny! You’re out of your element!” screams Walter.
The film opens at the beginning of Desert Storm in 1991, with the elder President Bush giving speeches in the background. The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is an aging L.A. hippie with no discernable line of work. His buddy Walter (John Goodman) runs (what else) a security business. We know almost nothing about Donny (Steve Buscemi) except that he’s a very good bowler, was once a surfer, and is always three to four beats behind every conversation between The Dude and Walter.
The Dude is attacked in his own home by two thugs who insist he give them the money his wife Bunny owes their boss. When they realize they have the wrong Jeffrey Lebowski, they leave, but not before one pees on his rug. Incensed, The Dude recounts the story to Walter and Donny at the bowling alley. Walter insists he not let it go, seek out the other Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston) and insist he replace the rug. (It really tied the room together.)
While the Big Lebowski treats him with utter contempt during their first meeting, he later hires The Dude to do the money drop when his wife Bunny (Tara Reid) is kidnapped.
Nearly every step of the way, The Dude makes the grievous error of including Walter (and sometimes Donny). When The Dude casually mentions he thinks Bunny Lebowski kidnapped herself, Walter seizes on that and gives the kidnappers a ringer instead of the actual suitcase of money. They leave the real suitcase of money in The Dude’s car to go bowling and later find that the car has been stolen from the parking lot. This sets off a long series of events as The Dude tries (not very hard) to find the money.
The Dude is probably Bridges’ (and the Coen Bros.) most iconic character to date. So burned out that he can hardly finish a sentence, he often parrots what other people say probably because his brain can’t think of anything original. Walter perhaps runs a close second to The Dude. He’s completely out of control, and he’s wrong about almost everything while confident he is always right. He stubbornly practices Judaism even though he only converted for his ex-wife. (It’s not 3,000 years of beautiful history, Walter, it’s over 5,000. But if I pointed that out to him, he’d probably pull a gun on me.) And almost everything, in his mind, is tied in some way to Vietnam. The Dude and Walter should be dire enemies, yet even though Walter frustrates The Dude to no end, he invariably forgives him.
Now we come to the question of Donny. For years, there was a theory floating around with some fans that Donny is actually a figment of Walter’s imagination, possibly a buddy who died in Nam, because he is the only one who interacts with him. This is not accurate—there are about two or three times that The Dude acknowledges Donny’s presence. (“Dude, your phone’s ringing.” “Thank you, Donny!”) Even so, it’s such a persistent belief the Coen Bros. themselves have refuted it in interviews.
I think in some ways Donny functions as a stand-in for the audience. The labyrinthian plot (inspired by Raymond Chandler detective novels that also made little sense) probably confounds the audience at times as much as it confounds Donny. The biggest laughs usually come when Walter is on his latest rampage and The Dude is begging him to stop, with Donny wrinkling his brow in the background, trying to figure out what the heck is going on.
The political subtext of the relationship the three men share seems more relevant today than ever. The Right and Left yelling at each other while the quiet middle fades away in the background.
While that’s pretty serious stuff, the interaction between the characters is still screamingly funny. I re-watched the film just before writing this (mostly to confirm which scenes Donny appears in) and still laughed just as hard at the antics of these three mismatched friends. They will probably always remain one of my favorite movie threesomes of all time.