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The Boston Phoenix Life's a Ball

The Coens just keep bowling along.

By Gary Susman

MARCH 9, 1998: 

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.

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.

Making it clear

The Coen brothers

By Gary Susman

NEW YORK -- Don't expect to find deep meaning in the utterances of the Coen Brothers, any more than you would expect to find it in their films.

Sure, if you ask about the inspiration behind The Big Lebowski, Ethan will explain, "The narrative is suggested by Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels. It's this episodic narrative about a character who's not a private eye in this case, just a layabout pothead who works his way through LA society trying to unravel this mystery."

And if you ask Joel why the characters are obsessed with bowling, he'll say, "We like the design aspects of bowling. The sort of retro aspects of it seemed like the right fit for the characters. One of the people this is loosely based on was in an amateur softball league in LA that really took up a lot of his time. We changed that to bowling because bowling seemed more compelling from a visual point of view." He adds, "It's the only thing that calls itself a sport where you can smoke and drink beer."

But mostly, the brothers (Joel is credited as director and Ethan as producer, but both direct, write, produce, and edit) have no trenchant explanation for any of their weirdness. Asked why they made Vietnam vet Walter (John Goodman) an observant Jew, Ethan replies, "What's the point of any of the characterization? It's a peg to hang a few gags on him. There's something about the incongruity of a Vietnam vet, gun buff, military fanatic being also a devout converted Jew that was appealing to us."

So you make a point of going for what will make the weirdest character? "Weird isn't the right word," says Ethan. "The most vivid character. Yeah, sure."

In fact, when asked at last month's film festival in Berlin whether the movie had any point at all, beyond laughing at German nihilists and Latino pederasts, Joel said, "I guess you hit the nail on the head."

Jeff Bridges, who plays the film's stoner hero, the Dude, insists that the movie does have a moral dimension, though he's hard pressed to explain it. "I think it's a film about grace, how amazing it is that we're all allowed to stay alive on this speck hurled out into space, being as screwed up as they all are.

"Like, Fargo had a moral resonance to it. This one, I think, does as well. It may not be apparent to most people at first. But working in it, kind of bathing in this thing, it rang for me. It's not a real clear thing that you can say, 'That's what it means.' It's a little different."

How did the Coens justify the film's quirks to him? "They kind of laughed. It's their style to have these weird things, like that Oriental guy in Fargo with that Fargo accent. Where does that go? It doesn't go anywhere. Or [in Lebowski] the dancing landlord. Why are you here? It's kind of lifelike. It rings true somehow."

Neither did the Coens explain much to Julianne Moore, who plays Maude, an aristocratic artist who mystifies and ensnares the Dude. "They don't really talk a lot, which I love. I don't like to talk a lot when I'm working. It gets in the way. They do seem to communicate in some symbiotic way. I really loved it because you have this duality that becomes the vision on the set. You get a larger breadth of artistic vision. There's always an eye there. Which I really enjoyed."

So if you have any questions, you can go to either one of them? "Yeah. Which I thought was extremely odd. I didn't discover that until the first day on the set, when Ethan came over, and the line was 'Jeffrey, tell me a little about yourself,' and Ethan said, 'Lose the "little," ' and he never told Joel, 'I told Julie to do this,' which would take obviously an incredible amount of time. That's when you realize that they just do that. But Joel will come over and say something, and they just balance it that way."

Moore, however, is a trouper who doesn't question the strangeness, whether she has to dance in a dream sequence in a Valkyrie costume with bowling-ball breastplates or swoop across a room, spattering paint onto a canvas on the floor, while suspended naked in a harness. "I had no idea what they were going to do," she says of that scene. "I assumed I was going to be upright. I didn't know I was going to be like Superman. That was terrifying. And I was pregnant, and it was three in the morning, and I was 30 feet in the air, and they had to bring me up really fast. It was really strange, but it was worth it in the end."

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