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
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