I want you to consider a scenario with me for a moment. You want to write a movie, and you have an idea. This idea is to write a film with no coherent plot and mountains of profanity. Your main character will be an unemployed middle-aged man, and most of the movie will take place in a bowling alley. I think most of us would move onto the next idea at that point.
And that’s because we are not pure geniuses like Joel and Ethan Coen. What makes The Big Lebowski such an all-time great film is the fact that they were able to masterfully execute on such an absurd premise. One of the main ways they were able to do this was through writing simply incredible characters. The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is one of the most indelible characters in movie history. Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) – for all his bravado and anger – is plainly a human character with emotions under the surface and life outside of the small slice we see in the film. You even have two of the most talented actors of a generation – Julianne Moore and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman – in smaller roles.
But it is the character of Theodore Donald “Donny” Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi) that has spawned what must be one of the great fan movie theories ever crafted. The only problem being that it doesn’t really hold up to much scrutiny.
The theory goes as follows: Walter is always telling Donny to shut up, but The Dude never does the same. In fact, other than Walter, nobody seems to take much notice of Donny. And so, it has been posited that Donny is a fallen friend of Walter’s from Vietnam who now only lives as a figment of Walter’s imagination.
Let me first say that I absolutely love this theory, and it goes to show why The Big Lebowski has such an enduring legacy. These characters are fully inhabited by the actors who perform them. At the same time, there’s so much of them that exists outside the screen. There is enough bandwidth in these characters to support a great deal of analysis and consideration, and that shows just how masterfully they were written by the Coens.
But, even with my deep love for the fact that fans could even come up with a theory like this, there are two reasons (and a bit of a cheat for a third) why the theory couldn’t possibly be true. Donny must be considered a real person within the confines of the story.
The first and most obvious being that his ashes are committed to “the bosom of the Pacific Ocean, which (he) loved so well.” If Donny is just a figment of Walter’s imagination, then what’s in the Folgers jar? Maybe you think that isn’t real, either. Well, then why does The Dude react when the ashes are blown in his face? Some say he doesn’t really react to it, but I think that’s a bit of a reach. He’s clearly upset as Walter is brushing him off. From that scene alone, it seems pretty clear that Donny is real and is known to both Walter and The Dude.
On top of that, in an earlier scene where The Dude’s car is stolen, he clearly makes a reference to Donny as he is walking away from the parking lot. If Donny isn’t real, then who was The Dude talking to and why does he refer to him as Donny?
Finally, and I’ll admit this is a bit of a cheat, the Coens themselves have even responded to the theory. Talking to The Huffington Post, the Coens said they weren’t aware of the theory but that they didn’t think it held much weight.
These characters are so memorable, but they do almost float through the film. The entire movie is a dream, of sorts. Though the story winds through The Dude’s stolen rug and the multi-layered implications of it, you can’t really say that the movie is about that story. Bowling takes up more of the film than anything else. Through it all, it is the characters and their endlessly-quotable dialogue that make us love the film.
So maybe that’s the real reason I can’t accept that Donny is imaginary – these characters are too sacred for me. For the Coens to be able to craft this film out of its various parts must be one of the great feats in cinema history. No one else could do this. And so, I just don’t want to mess with the film at all. Even the fact that such an intricate fan theory could be created is a testament to the Coens’ work. But I can’t bring myself to believe it.
But, hey, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.