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"The Big Lebowski" satirizes just about everything left coast.

By Stacey Richter

MARCH 9, 1998:  IN THE THEIR last film, Fargo, the Coen brothers turned their skewed vision towards the northern edge of America--envisioned as a bleak and snowy wasteland where everyone is perpetually perky, especially the cops. In The Big Lebowski, they've turned the same idiosyncratic eye towards Los Angeles, which is pictured as a seething snake pit of individuality where everyone is frantically doing their own "thing," be it bowling, painting, or giving themselves a pedicure. All of this is filmed with such panache that it's hard not to like The Big Lebowski. The guy sitting behind me in the theater had a big, hearty laugh-track guffaw that drowned out the dialogue, and he was at it through the whole film. The film is pretty funny, so try not to sit close to someone like this if you can help it.

A Lebowski, if you're wondering, is the last name of guy. There are (at least) two Lebowski's in The Big Lebowski; a lazy, unemployed pot head who generally goes by the sobriquet of "The Dude" (Jeff Bridges, in Birkenstocks). The other is the wealthy industrialist for which The Dude is mistaken. (And it's unclear to which Lebowski the title refers!) Naturally, this classic case of mistaken identity sets the ball rolling. Then the Coen brothers go on to reference and/or poke fun at nearly every genre of film you can name. There's a little crime drama, a little detective work, a trace of romance, a western, with a few musical production numbers tossed in for the hell of it.

The Coen brothers haven't always had good luck making satires of genre movies. The Hudsucker Proxy, a take-off of a '40s rags-to-riches story, though it had some charm, was generally found to be annoying. The Big Lebowski is far more successful, in part because it goes in so many different directions at once. There is a little something here for everyone; if you don't have a particular fondness for Busby Berkeley musicals--fondly spoofed in some wonderful dream sequences--you can just wait it out, and The Big Lebowski will return to the real world of Los Angeles. Or as close to real as the Coen brothers seem inclined to get.

The good guys in The Big Lebowski are an unlikely trio of losers: The Dude; his buddy Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), a perpetually pissed-off Vietnam Vet; and Donny (Steve Buscemi), a mousy guy leading a life of quiet desperation. The three have cemented their friendship through a common passion for bowling. A lot of the movie is set in bowling alleys, which feels like a happy excuse for the Coen brothers to take advantage of a photogenic location. There are gleaming lanes, shiny balls and scattering pins, and a parade of strange Californians in bowling shirts.

The plot involves a kidnapping, some stolen money, and an expensive rug, but all this activity seems to be an elaborate excuse for the introduction of a series of odd customers, including a German new-wave-band-turned-crime-gang. The very best parts of Lebowski are the strange little by-ways it travels that have nothing at all to do with the plot: David Thewlis makes a brief appearance as a video artist who can't stop giggling, and John Turturro steals the show with his very brief role as Jesus Quintana, a charismatic but deviant bowler. The most compelling scene in the movie for me was a brief little aside showing Jesus ringing doorbells in order to announce himself as a sex offender to his neighbors.

This oddball behavior is filmed with the arresting visual sense that characterizes all the movies by the Coen brothers, and with considerably less violence than Fargo, which seemed to have been too much for some people. (I once had a cyst removed from my face; while the doctor ripped a mutant knot of flesh from under my skin and blood ran down my neck, he told me that he found Fargo way too gory.) The Coen brothers exercise their cinematic skills by slipping back and forth between the realm of the possible and the magical. The Big Lebowski is mostly set in the real world, but it veers into movieland whenever it feels like it: Flying carpets, production numbers, wayward cowboys addressing the camera.... You name, it's all fair game for The Big Lebowski. Even non-bowlers might find something to like here.

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