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By Devin D. O'Leary

MARCH 9, 1998: 

The Big Lebowski

After their attention-grabbing, Oscar-nabbing work in Fargo, the Coen boys have been dragged, blind-eyed and blinking, from the dark confines of the underground to the bright lights and flashbulb scrutiny of mainstream Hollywood. It's a shame really. The Coens (bless their hearts) are not, and never will be, mainstream filmmakers. From the comic quirk of The Hudsucker Proxy to the existential mindfuck of Barton Fink, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have demonstrated, time and time again, their idiosyncratic tastes and their comic disdain for anything remotely ordinary. Fargo was as offbeat as any other Coen bros. film--it just happened to, for some reason, strike a note with some folks outside the regular Coen brothers purview. I say this, because many folks (especially the newly initiated) are likely to find their new flick, The Big Lebowski, a big letdown. Compare it to Fargo, and Lebowski comes off looking like some burlesque joke. Look at it in relation to the rest of their peculiar oeuvre, however, and you've got a classic Coen comedy.

The Big Lebowski is, believe it or not, a freaky funhouse riff on quintessential L.A. detective writer Raymond Chandler. Jeff Bridges is Jeff Lebowski (commonly known at "The Dude"), a clone of Chandler's classic private detective Philip Marlowe--that is if Marlowe were a laid-back, unemployed ex-hippie with a consuming passion for bowling. When two muscled thugs break into The Dude's squalid Venice Beach apartment and take a whiz on his favorite rug, our hero embarks on an epic quest to ... well, to replace his rug. The quest takes him to the home of one Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), an aging Pasadena millionaire and the true target of the urinating thugs. Needless to say, the other Jeff Lebowski isn't exactly cordial to his tangle-haired, bowling shirt-clad visitor.

When the Big Lebowski's young trophy wife is kidnapped, however, he turns to The Dude to help deliver the ransom money, figuring The Dude can tell if the "rug pissers" are behind it all. With the not-so-able assistance of belligerent bowling pal Walter Slobchak (John Goodman at his blustery best), The Dude promptly loses the $1 million ransom. In his stumbling search to recover the cash, The Dude runs into some of the strangest folks to ever inhabit the Southern California landscape. There's the Big Lebowski's feminist/guerrilla artist daughter (Julianne Moore, fresh off her Oscar-nominated work on Boogie Nights), a smiling porn film producer named Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) and a leather-clad gang of German nihilists (led by Fargo's Peter Stormare). Like Chandler's best work (The Big Sleep), The Big Lebowski is less of a mystery tale and more of a freakshow tour of Los Angeles and its sun-addled, sin-saddled denizens. Toss in a ton of kitschy bowling references and a Busby Berkeley-inspired musical number, and you've got one freaked-out film noir fever dream.

Taking a sharp right turn from Fargo's occasionally somber iciness, The Big Lebowski is a colorful, white-trash farce along the lines of Raising Arizona. This is unrepentantly funny comedy with little or no pretensions. I think by the time that our hero embarks on his extended dance sequence/acid flashback filled with cavorting Valkyries and neon bowling pins, most viewers will find themselves with jaws agape. Good. Just goes to show that the Coens haven't sold out; they aren't catering to anyone except themselves. That isn't to say that the Coens have gone braindead. Anyone who can recognize (let alone decipher) the off-the-wall theological undertones in The Big Lebowski is 10 steps ahead of the average viewer. Is The Dude, as is hinted at, actually Jesus Christ? Does he represent Mankind, caught in a struggle between God (The Big Lebowski) and Satan (pornographer Jackie Treehorn)? Or is he just a happy-go-lucky stoner looking for a new rug?

Ah, who cares. The Big Lebowski is aiming for the funny bone, not the brain. Everyone on the Coen payroll looks like they're having one hell of a good time. Bridges does stoned-out scruffy very well. John Goodman, as the Dude's Vietnam vet sidekick, turns his bulk to scary bluster and exhibits more range than he's ever been asked to before. Assorted cameos from Coen regulars (like Steve Buscemi and John Turturro) add oddball spice to this crazy la-la land stew. If everyone on screen is having this much fun, then the audience should just forget about their expectations, dump their inhibitions and join in on the merriment.

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