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The Coen brothers make a return to wacky form with "The Big Lebowski."

By Coury Turczyn

MARCH 16, 1998:  Early on in The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers' latest comedic workout, we see a motley collection of overweight bowlers releasing their resin missiles along shimmery wooden lanes. The bowlers' faces slowly move through strained expectation then on to joyous victory as glossy white pins explode upon impact. It's the kind of sequence that is simultaneously funny and familiar—the kind critics like.

But then later, our hero Dude (Jeff Bridges) finds himself in a dream sequence in which he gets swallowed whole by a giant bowling ball—and then we see the ball rolling down the alley from his perspective, inside the ball, round and round, ceiling and floor flashing by. Those clever little geeks put a camera inside the ball! Bet you never saw that before! Likewise, you've probably never seen German nihilists in black bodystockings wielding giant scissors, or a Viking woman in a bowling ball bra, or a fat, balding apartment manager perform a dance cycle in a tutu. It's these kinds of sequences that are weird and unfamiliar—the kind critics hate.

Pretentious, self-indulgent, overwrought—those are the crimes the Coens have been charged with over the years for such movies as Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, and The Hudsucker Proxy. "These aren't movies, they're gizmos!" goes the cry. "The Coens are more obsessed with making the movie than with telling a real human story!" And to a certain extent, it's true: The Coen brothers make movies filled with cartoon characters, trick photography, and zany grad school humor. Their visual style and scriptwriting are completely unlike anybody else's, which can result in movies like the painfully inaccessible Barton Fink or the popular wonder that was Fargo. But what upsets most critics, I think, is the fact that the Coens are sarcastic, intellectual film nerds with frizzy hair—just like 99.9 percent of movie critics. Only they get to make movies, and critics don't.

The Big Lebowski marks a return to traditional Coen silliness after the sober, darkly funny Fargo. This will result in a critical backlash, of course—the Coens got their best reviews for Fargo not only because it was a great movie, but because it was so sedate compared to their earlier films. "They've finally learned their lesson," critics sagely agreed, sensing victory, and rewarded them with plaudits. But apparently they didn't really take those lessons to heart—The Big Lebowski is sure to infuriate the Coens' taskmasters with its screwball hijinks and bizarre characters. And to this I say: So what. Regardless of their "indulgences," Coen brother movies are more imaginative, more original, and funnier than damn near anything else produced by Hollywood these days. If Lebowski makes you laugh, then all the crimes against filmmaking that the Coens supposedly commit should be forgiven.

With Lebowski, the Coens spoof yet another movie genre: the Chandler-esque, Los Angeles detective mystery. Dude (a.k.a., Jeff Lebowski) is an aging surfer and former '60s radical who spends most of his time drinking White Russians, smoking pot, and bowling with his pathetic pals Walter (John Goodman), an impatient Vietnam vet who's always ready for a fight, and Donny (Steve Buscemi), who enters the conversation late and never seems to catch up. Dude is plunged into a mystery when he's beaten up by thugs who mistake him for the millionaire Jeff Lebowski. When he attempts to warn the rich Lebowski—and get compensation for a rug that one of the thugs urinated on—he only gets a brusque lecture about work. But later, the rich Lebowski actually gives him a job: To deliver a $1 million ransom for the life of his much younger wife, Bunny. Dude soon finds himself in a complicated series of plots and counter-plots and struggles to figure out the truth, just like a classic detective.

Bridges gamely tackles his airhead character with gusto, with a scraggly beard and unkempt hair, forever wearing a T-shirt and shorts no matter where he goes. He's certainly likable enough, and the juxtaposition of a surfer dude amidst pulp fiction intrigue is a great comic set-up. The only shortcoming is in the mystery itself—the Coens never really develop one good enough to captivate our interest. The kidnapping plot starts out well enough but eventually fizzles out into some anticlimactic semi-sleuthing. Without a strong mystery to drive the narrative, what exactly is there to spoof? Just empty air. Sometimes it feels like the Coens try to fill space with throwaway gags and characters, like Sam Elliot's The Stranger, who occasionally pops up at the bowling alley's bar and chit-chats with Dude. Why? No particular reason. And what's a cowboy doing in a detective movie, anyway? Whatever.

If you like the Coens' sense of humor, you'll like The Big Lebowski. On the Coen Meter, it falls below Fargo and Raising Arizona—and maybe even The Hudsucker Proxy. But it's still better than 10 Adam Sandler movies put together, and that's something to laugh about.

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