The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: March 5 - 12, 1998

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Life's a ball

The Coens just keep bowling along

by Gary Susman

THE BIG LEBOWSKI. Directed by Joel Coen. Written by Joel and Ethan Coen. With Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, David Thewlis, Ben Gazzara, and Sam Elliott. A Gramercy Pictures release. At the Nickelodeon, the Harvard Square (both tentative), and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

The Big Lebowski, the latest from the Coen Brothers, is a godawful mess. I'm ready to see it again.

The Coens' ostensible goal is to play with the idea of a Raymond Chandler mystery like The Big Sleep (a sleuth, a millionaire, a good daughter, a bad girl, and a wide spectrum of Los Angeles weirdos), given a contemporary spin à la Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. Actually, Lebowski is a shaggy-dog tale to end all such tales, another feel-good movie about kidnapping from the folks who brought you Raising Arizona and Fargo.

Plus, an interview with the Coen brothers.

Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), a pothead who calls himself the Dude, is roughed up by thugs who mistake him for another Jeff Lebowski, a tycoon whose wife owes their boss money. The Dude explains the mix-up, but not before one of the goons pees on his rug. The Dude visits his wealthy namesake (David Huddleston) to demand restitution for the dry-cleaning bill, but Lebowski, a wheelchair-bound Republican who runs a foundation that gives scholarships to inner-city kids, is not about to give a handout to the able-bodied but willfully unemployed Dude. Dude leaves, but not before meeting Lebowski's trampy, spendthrift young trophy wife, Bunny (Tara Reid), and swiping a rug.

Soon, however, Lebowski finds Bunny missing and a ransom note. He summons the Dude, figuring that the kidnappers are probably the same lowlifes who soiled the rug, and that the Dude will recognize them. The ransom drop should be simple enough for the Dude, but he makes the mistake of involving his best friend and bowling teammate, Walter (John Goodman). Walter is a Falstaffian comic creation, the loud, abrasive, bellicose heart of the movie (if the movie can be said to have a heart). He throws himself headlong into his many passions -- his bowling team, his service in Vietnam (toward which he steers every conversation), and his conversion to Judaism (he likes quoting Theodor Herzl and won't bowl on the Sabbath). His temperament ranges from snappish (toward teammate Donny, who always stumbles into conversations a few beats late) to violent and paranoid; yet he's fiercely loyal. And though the Coens almost always condescend to their characters (Marge in Fargo is a notable exception), to the extent that anyone in this movie has qualities worth admiring, it's blustery Walter. Goodman (at his most boorish) and Bridges (at his most passive) make a solid comic team.

Having bungled the ransom drop, the Dude finds himself hounded by various persons, each with his or her own unfathomable agenda: Lebowski and his obsequious valet (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a gang of violent German nihilists (including Aimee Mann, of all people), a low-rent private eye, a suave porn producer (Ben Gazzara), the Malibu police, and Lebowski's urbane daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore). She's an avant-garde artist (her spectacular entrance gives new meaning to the phrase action painting) who suspects her father is embezzling the ransom money from the charitable foundation, but what she really wants the Dude for is something else entirely.

Then there's the interpretive-dancing landlord, the teenage car thief whose TV scriptwriter father is confined to an iron lung, and Jesus (John Turturro), a flamboyant rival bowler who's a paroled child molester. Not to mention the dream sequences, including a bowling-themed Busby Berkeley extravaganza choreographed to the pre-country Kenny Rogers psychedelic chestnut "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)."

Why? Well, why not? Even the film's narrator (Sam Elliott, doing his grizzled cowboy thing, just as incongruous as everyone else) admits that there's little point to this exercise except that it's a fun ride. The Coens, film geeks who've made a career out of twisting genre conventions and expectations to serve their own weird ends, throw into the mix an overabundance of potential frustrations and distractions -- characters who serve no function, character quirks that exist for no reason, plot payoffs that never arrive -- for the sole reason that they think these things are funny. Often they are funny. Which means it's best just to accept The Big Lebowski on its own anything-goes terms.

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