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(Credit: Gramercy Pictures)

Revisiting the brilliance of Walter Sobchak, John Goodman's underrated 'Big Lebowski' character

“Fuck it, Dude, let’s go bowling.”

Following the success of the Academy Award-winning film Fargo, when the Coen Brothers released the comparatively more relaxed and eccentric 1998 film The Big Lebowski, it did not fare too well at the box office. However, the film soon became a sensation, amassing a cult-like fan following, popularising bowling, Pomeranians and White Russians while inspiring a new religion and leading to the start of an eponymous festival. This extremely bizarre yet poignant noir film seems to be created while the filmmakers were high as they focus on a chill dude, named The Dude, who wants to seek vengeance against the goons who peed on his favourite rug while holding him hostage, having mistaken him for his namesake, thus getting embroiled in an unnecessary but hilarious cat and mouse chase. He is advised on various matters by his wacky bowling partners, namely the Vietnam war veteran and severe PTSD-ridden Walter Sobchak and Donny Kerabatsos. Jeff Bridges as The Dude is accompanied by the greatness of the likes of John Goodman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, Tara Reid, David Huddleston and more who help add the sense of weird charm and humour to this film. 

John Goodman, who played the volatile Walter Sobchak in the film, actually turns 70 today and is celebrated for his brilliant performance as the husband to Roseanne, Dan Conner on the television show Roseanne, as well as for his frequent collaborations with the Coen Brothers in their films, namely Barton Fink, Inside Llewyn Davis, Raising Arizona and more. Goodman was terrific in his role as Sobchak, giving his absolute best and helping the character be one of the most memorable and amusing in the history of comedy films. While the duo had described the film to him as “film noir with a usual gang of morons”, the actor thought it would be somewhat like the style of “Harvey Kurtzman”. 

The Big Lebowski is the kind of film that grows on you over time and Goodman has realised that when the film gradually started garnering popularity, becoming a phenomenon, a cult film that people appreciated greatly due to its unique qualities and wacky stoner sense of humour. While the character of Sobchak was reportedly partially based on that of John Milius, the iconic screenwriter and director, Goodman said that the influence “really didn’t matter, because what they had on the page was so fully realised that it didn’t matter who these guys were, it didn’t matter if they existed.” He further added that, “All that mattered was what was spelled out on the page, and it was so vivid in my mind. Everything was spelled out for you. It’s almost idiot-proof. Almost, I say.”  

The Dude’s best friend and a Vietnam war veteran, a devoted Jew and a doting ex-husband, Sobchak is inarguably one of the best and funniest characters in the film. The traumatic experiences resulting from his time serving in the Vietnam War leaves him in a state of psychotic and volatile rage and a sense of grappling paranoia. Walter is boisterous, overly confident, incredibly stubborn and somewhat reckless, with his plans often backfiring due to his excessive pride and nonchalance. Walter is obsessed with rules in general and does not like it when the order of the universe is disrupted. From getting incredibly hyper when The Dude questions his decision of bringing his dog bowling to pulling a gun on Smokey when he inadvertently oversteps the line yet not acknowledging his mistake of breaking a rule, this man’s volatility knows no bounds. 

Bless the Coen Brothers for giving Walter some of the most iconic dialogues in the film. With his short-cropped hair, pair of tinted glasses, neatly trimmed French-cut beard and a mingled expression of anger and boredom plastered on his face, Walter effortlessly drawls out some of the most iconic lines by always resorting to bowling as the answer to all the problems. Sobchak is The Dude’s best friend and cares about the latter’s welfare. Yet his aggression often leads to certain conflicts in the film which are hilarious and help move the plot forward. From destroying someone else’s car to his blind faith in Judaism disrupting The Dude’s plans to stopping the deal with kidnappers, the uproariously funny Sobchak is the root cause of all conflicts and problems. A proud veteran, his constant references to his time in Vietnam as well as his unbridled adoration towards his ex-wife, to the point where he takes care of her dog while she vacations with her boyfriend, are constant gags in the film. 

John Goodman as Walter Sobchak. (Credit: Alamy)

Sobchak’s uncontrollably angry and exasperated personality is in absolute contrast with The Dude’s idle, zen one. Every time Sobchak loses his temper, some of the funniest moments in the film occur. Walter thinks he is trashing Larry’s car which turns out to be a neighbour’s vehicle and it results in Walter’s car getting smashed as well. He calls nihilists cowards and ranks Nazis above them as Nazism, according to him, is “at least [it’s] an ethos”. The Dude’s other friend, Donny, exists as a perfect foil to Walter Sobchak’s pretentious, self-serving self as the former continues to make fun of the latter’s melodramatic, overbearing presence. Donny constantly questions Walter and that just adds to the fun element of the movie. Even while Walter tries to come off as important and constantly asks Donny to “shut the fuck up”, the latter’s relentless questioning exposes Walter’s riotous hypocrisy, downplaying his competence yet emphasising his endearing hilarity. 

Walter Sobchak’s memorable one-liners are witty and quotable and help keep the character feel alive, quirky and humorous. Even when Walter is trying to set in a sombre and poignant mood while immersing Donny’s ashes in the ocean, his narcissistic speech is silly and absurd as he talks less about Donny and more about the war that is intrinsically connected to his subconscious. Donny’s ashes fly in the air, covering The Dude’s sunglasses and Sobchak, a selfish, self-serving yet flippant prick, appears to be extremely comical in this scene.

Sobchak’s speech went in the following direction: “Donny was a good bowler and a good man. He was one of us. He was a man who loved the outdoors… and bowling, and as a surfer, he explored the beaches of Southern California, from La Jolla to Leo Carrillo and… up to… Pismo. He died, like so many young men of his generation, he died before his time. In your wisdom, Lord, you took him, as you took so many bright flowering young men at Khe Sanh, at Langdok, at Hill 364. These young men gave their lives. And so would Donny. Donny, who loved bowling. And so, Theodore Donald Karabotsos, in accordance with what we think your dying wishes might well have been, we commit your final mortal remains to the bosom of the Pacific Ocean, which you loved so well. Good night, sweet prince.”

It is Walter Sobchak’s excessive political correctness, aggression, hypocrisy, obsessive behaviour, penchant for using the word fuck, going bowling, an affinity for handguns, rules and his unwavering faith in Judaism as well as his two-faced approach towards life and vehement hatred towards nihilists that make his such a bizarre and entertaining character, buoying with a comic aspect; his boisterous and impulsive behaviour as well as the inability to admit his faults keep on adding to this funny aura. Goodman had put in his absolute best which helped Sobchak be one of the most acclaimed and well-lied characters in the film due to his overwhelmingly hilarious on-screen presence.

Nearly 23 years later, this oddly engrossing film with its stoner-like visuals, terrific characters and brilliant and well-suited background scores, leaves an indelible mark on the minds of the audience who cannot help but start believing in the Dudeist philosophy of life where one must take everything easy and chill. While Jeff Bridges is wonderful as the sublime Dude, John Goodman steals the show with his performance as the ever-annoyed and irate Walter Sobchak who is undoubtedly immensely popular among fans. 

“Nihilists! Fuck me. I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

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