In 1998, when the Dude shuffled into the nation’s movie theaters wearing a bathrobe, slurping a White Russian and licking the residue of 10,000 joints from the fringes of his filthy mustache, there was no way for us to know what he’d become: the first, most convincing cinematic superhero for an age of quagmire and stalemate. Compared to the Dude, the typical superheroes of our day feel less and less reassuring, and even ominous. Billionaire playboys who mask their true identities while turning themselves into gigantic armored flying boners aren’t the solutions to violence, we sense, but embodiments of the traits that cause it.
The Dude’s approach to conquering evil was to let it conquer itself while he takes a bath or crashes on the sofa. There was no fight he couldn’t run away from and no challenge he couldn’t brush aside. His testosterone, it seemed. had turned to two percent. His motto, “Take it easy, man,” was no inflammatory call to battle but a brilliant reminder that, in times of stress, one always has the option of not stressing. In its own way, the Dude’s lifestyle offers a radical critique of America’s tension-wracked, self-defeating culture. He doesn’t have an adjustable-rate mortgage, the only ID he carries on his person is a supermarket discount card, and it’s hard to imagine him wearing out his fingers hitting “refresh” on Perez Hilton’s Website every time Denise Richards serves Charlie Sheen with another 16-page petition.
The Dude’s lesson, in its heroic essence, is that as long as grown-up men don’t get out of their pajamas — or, if they do, immediately don bowling shoes — the world will be a better place. That his hotheaded best friend, Walter, disagrees with him bums the Dude out, of course, but not profoundly. The militaristic nut deserves some latitude. Of the countless haunted Vietnam vets served up by Hollywood over the years, Walter is the most volatile yet lovable, a hand grenade in the shape of a stuffed bear.
The friendship between the Dude and Walter is founded on the law of basic loyalty, which may be the only law the Dude respects. Eventually, when things heat up, the peacenik joins forces with the psycho, the draft dodger lines up with the GI, and the festering wounds of Vietnam are truly and spiritually healed. Blessedly, this healing doesn’t require a full-scale bombardment of Iraq, which was thought by some politicians at the time to be the most effective way to recapture the national self-confidence lost in the rice paddies of Nam. No, what brings the Dude and Walter together is their discovery of a common enemy. If the pair of them represent two species of the trampled grass-roots American, then the wheelchair-bound, Cheney-esque millionaire Lebowski is a pressurized tank of social herbicide. Lebowski isn’t fussy about destruction; he wants to clear the ground of bums and oddballs so he can smoothly roll across it, unimpeded, unopposed.
If the movie is about anything (and plenty of folks thought it wasn’t when it came out, though now there are some who think it’s about everything), it’s a satirical repudiation of the deadly male obsession to level, flatten and lay waste so as to lord over what remains. This phallic triumphalism spooks the Dude. Fears of castration assault his porous psyche like armies of chattering, wind-up, joke-shop teeth. A hungry ferret is tossed into his bubble bath. A fumbled joint nearly incinerates his pants. Mimes with gigantic scissors invade his dreams. In the meantime, Lebowski’s performance-artist daughter, Maude, is plotting to discard him like a turkey baster once she’s managed to water her parched womb with his precious bodily fluids. And then, of course, there are all the toppling bowling pins, scourging the Dude’s subconscious with every strike.
That the Dude can decline to engage with such assaults on the ramparts of his masculinity is one of his distinctive superpowers. It elevates him above his strutting counterparts like Batman and Iron Man, whose costumes center on a bulging codpiece. The Dude is a softy for the most part, while Batman and Iron Man strive incessantly for the grandiose tumescence that makes our world so dangerous in the first place. The Dude understands this fateful truth. The pushy hard-ons of the elites were precisely what got us into Vietnam and then, years later, sent our soldiers against Saddam Hussein, first to cut him down to size, and then, when that operation didn’t satisfy, to cut him into bits.
The Dude won’t have it, though. He rejects absolutism in all its forms, embraces half-assedness, and even grants Walter a final sloppy hug despite the fact that his shellshocked outbursts have indirectly killed their bowling partner. The Dude is not Jesus, but if he were to meet the Son of God, he’d let him finish the last roach from his stash. If ours is truly “a world of pain,” as Walter repeatedly asserts and the nightly news bears out, then the Dude is one of those saintly underachievers, those holy screw-ups, who make it somewhat bearable. His greatest powers are not to use his power and to acknowledge — serenely, without resentment — that, in the end, he doesn’t have much power. Forever may he stagger. Long may he weave.