Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer On a Roll

By Susan Ellis

MARCH 16, 1998:  It’s not every day you get to see a Viking maiden bowl. But, then again, it’s not so surprising since this scene comes courtesy of the Coen brothers in their latest film The Big Lebowski. With The Big Lebowski, the Coens reaffirm their status as master practitioners of the comically absurd – for the movie is nothing if not absurd; “stupefying” is how the narrator puts it. And it’s this element that drives the film, making it as enjoyable a comedy as it could be.

Front and center in this convoluted tale is one Jeff “Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges). Dude is a pot-mellowed guy who lives in a dingy apartment and even dingier clothes. He’s a league bowler and not much else. But then, after a pair of thugs break into his apartment and soil his rug, Dude suddenly has a career opportunity. The men were looking for another Jeff Lebowski, the crusty millionaire “Big Lebowski” (David Huddleston). Dude goes to visit his namesake to recover the cost of his damaged rug (“It tied the room together,” he’s been convinced), and though he’s initially tossed out on his can, he gets called back to deliver money to the kidnappers of the Big Lebowski’s promiscuous, much younger wife (Tara Reid).

Dude, with the help of his league teammate and ’Nam-addled buddy Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), fouls up the drop and loses the money. Now, the Big Lebowski is after him as well as some German Nihilists, a very powerful pornographer, and Lebowski’s estranged avant-garde artist daughter Maude (Julianne Moore), who muses over the lack of slang for the word “vagina.”

And if that sounds strange, consider Dude’s dream sequence which involves Saddam Hussein renting bowling shoes and the shot taken from the perspective of a rolling bowling ball. Or, how about Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), a Latino league rival who wears his purple pantsuit skin-tight and threatens to violate Dude, Walter, and team member Donny (Steve Buscemi) during the semi-finals? Then there’s the dance recital of Dude’s roly-poly landlord (Jack Kehler), who’s clad in nothing but a nude bodysuit and a few sprigs of leaves.

These bizarre touches are right up the Coens’ alley. The Big Lebowski possesses none of the dark undertones that flavored their last big hit, Fargo. Nor does it – despite all of its sundry characters and brief plot detours (such as the dream sequences) – try to do too much, as in The Hudsucker Proxy. Rather, this film harks back to Raising Arizona, another happily goofy kidnap caper.

In delivering their tale of mayhem, the Coens enlisted cinematographer Roger Deakins, who produces a crisp, bright look, and they have chosen a nifty soundtrack with bits of classical music, a flamenco-heavy cover of “Hotel California” by the Gipsy Kings, and more songs by Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Booker T. and the MGs, and others. Plus, there’s the crack ensemble cast. Bridges gives one of his funnier performances as the relaxed Dude. He’s heaped with abuse (he gets attacked by a ferret while enjoying a bath, among other indignities), but seemingly nothing gets more than just a little rattled. After he’s handed the ransom note by the Big Lebowski, Dude just says, “That’s a bummer,” then asks if he can light a “J.” As his partner in this crime, Goodman gets the choicest lines. He struggles to find a connection to his experiences in Vietnam in everything, even bowling. When a fellow bowler commits a small infraction, Walter pulls a gun and yells, “This is not ’Nam, Smokey. This is bowling. We’ve got rules!” Later, when Dude, Donny, and he are threatened by the Germans, he say, “Don’t worry. They’re Nihilists; they can’t hurt you.” Those with bit parts include David Thewlis as a giggling video director, Flea as one of the Germans, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Big Lebowski’s Mr. Smithers-like assistant.

The Big Lebowski is frequently hilarious, and if it sounds cliche to say laugh-out-loud funny, then so be it.

In Twilight, Paul Newman and director/writer Robert Benton team up again. Their last pairing was on 1994’s Nobody’s Fool, in which Newman played a charming ne’er-do-well, a role that earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor. Twilight, though, is definitely seamier, and Newman’s part as a battered former cop and retired private eye has more edge.

Newman plays Harry Ross, a man with a history of helping his friend Jack Ames (Gene Hackman) and his wife Catherine (Susan Sarandon). On one tour of duty Harry got shot while fetching Ames’ 17-year-old daughter back from Mexico. Since then, Harry has become the Ames’ permanent houseguest, playing cards with Jack and soaking in Catherine’s sultry voice.

The Ames, as actors, are Hollywood’s elite. The type who own a pair of million-dollar homes crammed with finery and complain that they are broke. They also expect to get away with things, and they do. But now that Jack is getting older, his luck is running out. He’s got cancer and he’s got a blackmailer who wants hush money for a 20-year-old incident. That’s when Jack calls on Harry for a favor. He wants Harry to deliver a package and make sure it gets into the right hands. When Harry grudgingly goes to the appointed meeting place, he’s met by a wheezing, gun-wielding man who’s been shot in the gut. Harry recognizes him as an old crony from the police force and heads to the man’s house to figure out what’s happened. There, Harry is nabbed by the cops, including his onetime partner and former lover Verna (Stockard Channing).

After he’s released, Harry continues to investigate and discovers something he may have known all along – that the Ames’ bond goes deep and their loyalty has an intensity that could be deadly.

While this sort of love-triangle, film-noirish style is nothing new, approaching it from a more mature standpoint is refreshing. James Garner plays Raymond Hope, a tough former cop and private problem-fixer. Only, because of his age, Hope’s not as tough as he would like to be. It’s not every movie that the badass discusses prostate problems.

Newman, Hackman, and Sarandon are all seasoned pros. They allow the certain vulnerabilities of age (sickness, wrinkles) to inform their work, and they’re able to build up a certain amount of sexual steam among them. Sarandon is especially effective as the actress trying to play innocent – you can see the deceit behind her eyes.

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