Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Dude the Obscure

The Coens pick up a spare.

By Donna Bowman, Noel Murray, and Jim Ridley

MARCH 16, 1998:  As the Olympian puppetmasters overseeing Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen did not look kindly upon ambition. When a car salesman, Jerry Lundegaard, resorted to kidnapping to earn money for an investment scheme, the gods strung him out to the frayed ends of his desperate rope. Then they cut him down. Lundegaard became the Coens' symbol for the kind of dreams that just don't fly in Brainerd, Minn.

In the very different town of Los Angeles, the Coens turn a more benign eye toward the modest dreams of a man whose glory days are long past. The Big Lebowski is the opposite of Fargo in many ways--it's a loud, crowded comedy rather than a spare tragedy. But the most important difference is in its hero, The Dude, an aging hippie who's redeemed to his creators by his very lack of ambition. His story may be less momentous than Lundegaard's, but the grace of The Big Lebowski is simply that it has found a teller, someone who sees in this bumbling, accidental hero the right man for a singular--if poorly defined--job.

There's no reason to expect The Big Lebowski to repeat the stark emotional resonance and shocking humor of Fargo, if only because the Coens seldom repeat themselves. The surprise is that they've turned a script based on slapstick, stoners, and screwball dialogue into a soft-hearted love letter to The Dude. Stylistically excessive, pointlessly plotted, and riotously funny, The Big Lebowski generates huge belly laughs, but it also pricks an unexpected emotional core by communicating the Coens' affection for their hapless misfit protagonist.

Jeff Bridges gloriously lets himself go as The Dude--n Jeffrey Lebowski--who is mistaken by some unorthodox bill collectors for a crippled millionaire with the same name. Hoping to be compensated for the thugs' destruction of a rug that "really tied the room together," The Dude visits the millionaire (played by David Huddleston) and is summarily dismissed. But when the rich Lebowski's young, nymphomaniacal wife is kidnapped, The Dude gets tapped to deliver the ransom. His involvement leads to meetings with other interested parties: Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), an avant-garde feminist artist who unnerves The Dude with frank talk about sex; a defunct '80s German techno-pop band called Autobahn (led by Peter Stormare), whose members are now all practicing nihilists; and Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), a porno producer who once featured the present Mrs. Lebowski in a film called Logjammin'.

In between getting beaten up by various members of these factions, The Dude bowls. His league bowling team, too disorganized to have a name or customized shirts, includes Walter (John Goodman), a Vietnam vet whose every interest quickly becomes a dangerous obsession, and Donny (Steve Buscemi), a retiring youngster who, alone among the group, really seems to enjoy bowling. Meanwhile, the league championships are coming up, and the team's closest rival is led by a flamboyant Hispanic pederast (John Turturro).
In the grand tradition of shaggy-dog plots, not much is actually resolved when the movie ends. But during The Dude's desultory hunt for the truth about the kidnapping and the missing ransom, he gets to be an important guy for the first time since his protest days in the "Seattle Seven." Like countless detectives in novels and noirs before him, he lets the plotters and victims try to enlist him on their side, until, inevitably, the sides change places and the truth comes out. A balding shamus follows The Dude around in a Volkswagen admiring his skill at playing one side against the other; except, of course, The Dude's not a detective, and he has no plan. His pot-addled brain is too slow for any pretense of skill, leaving him babbling hesitantly about "the complexities" and "the facets." Whatever success he achieves is the result of his foes' overestimation of him. Even so, his creators don't judge him; they celebrate his happy accidents.


Bowled over
Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi, and John Goodman, misfit chums in The Big Lebowski

The Coen's comic strengths are on dazzling display here: dialogue with crazed, dance-like rhythms that positions each character in the social pecking order; whacked-out dream sequences; hilarious sight gags and visual non-sequiturs. In these senses, The Big Lebowski is the sequel to the much-maligned The Hudsucker Proxy, a more direct homage to '40s screwball comedy. But if Hudsucker seemed a cold technical exercise, Lebowski wears its heart on its sleeve, especially in the closing sequences where "The Stranger" (Sam Elliott), a surrogate for the audience, enters the film. He encourages The Dude and reassures us that he will abide, rolling on through the wild, untamed frontier of the '90s like the tumbling tumbleweed.
One might even find themes in the profane high jinks: the fading ideal of the American West, or the meaning of "achievement." No need to get your feet wet with ideas to enjoy The Big Lebowski, though. As in their funniest previous movie, Raising Arizona, the Coens have found a lovable loser on the fringes of life and placed him in a hilarious situation where he finds both momentary significance and lasting happiness. If The Big Lebowski's L.A. lights seem a little dim in the long shadow of Fargo, the movie invites you just to step out of the darkness and laugh.
--Donna Bowman


The remains of the day

The unwritten rule of detective stories is that the hero should be past his prime, or at least out of his era, because this one character detail brings out so much of what makes the genre evocative. A private eye travels among the seedy and the pretty and notices things that the actual inhabitants of those classes would miss. He is constantly underestimated by people who think they know what makes him tick; he may solve the case, but he'll remain a loser to the end.

The genre needs these losers to set the story in motion. Even The Big Lebowski--the Coen Brothers' frayed, inspired spoof on detective flicks and L.A. malaise--features The Dude, a bumbling relic from the antiwar movement. The Coens carefully set the film in the days preceding the Gulf War--a moment of rah-rah militarism that may have been the death knell for '60s-style pacifism. The subtle joke of the movie is that The Dude's era is ending, though he continues to coast on his hippie cred. In many ways--particularly in its choice of protagonist--The Big Lebowski is the spiritual descendant of Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, without Altman's bold acridity.

In a different way, so is Twilight, the relaxed L.A. noir from director Robert Benton, screenwriter Richard Russo, and star Paul Newman (all of whom previously collaborated on the sublime Nobody's Fool). Twilight is about the residue of the whole heady Hollywood milieu that spawned The Long Goodbye--the very milieu that spawned the careers of Twilight's cast.

Newman plays Harry Ross, an ex-cop turned detective who was on the verge of retiring to the gutter before an old buddy (James Garner) sobered him up and hipped him to a gig running "errands" for a once glamorous Hollywood couple (Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon). As the film opens, Ross is living above the garage at the couple's plush home while he recovers from a gunshot wound that he picked up while trying to recover the couple's daughter (Reese Witherspoon) from an illicit affair in Mexico.

While delivering a package, Ross stumbles across another ex-cop detective (M. Emmet Walsh) with a fatal belly wound. Investigating further, Ross finds himself embroiled in an extortion plot stemming from the disappearance of an actor some 20-odd years ago. What he finds leads him back to his employers, and to a mystery that seems to matter only to the principals involved.

Twilight was originally entitled The Magic Hour, the cinematic term for twilight--specifically, the golden cast that the dusk brings to even the most mundane surroundings. Much of Twilight was actually filmed at the magic hour, which gives the film a supple, warm look. The new title is ultimately more appropriate, though, since this story deals with characters who are in the twilight of their lives, with maybe one more bright moment left before sundown.

The homes, apartments, and even police stations where Twilight is set are covered with movie posters, old head shots, and yellowed press clippings; the film implies all sorts of relationships between these aging stars and the aging lawmen who idolize them and cover up their mistakes. Unfortunately, Russo and Benton keep these implications subtle, with only the occasional awkward speech to state the themes of the film.

Luckily, these actors are good enough to spur the audience's imagination even when the film doesn't provide the details. Twilight's submerged story--about the excesses of the acting community in the waning days of the studio system, and how their glamour continues to seduce people who should know better--is played out in the fake camaraderie of Newman and Hackman, as well as in the timid sexual sparks that fly up from Newman and Sarandon. Twilight is a quiet film, with almost no action--unless you count the action of charismatic performers reducing their craft to its minimal, electrifying essence.

Detective stories are rarely about their plots (although the best ones admittedly have better plots than Twilight's pale plugger). Instead, the framework of a gumshoe working a case provides an opportunity for the audience to study the situation, and the people involved, and to learn about what humans will do in desperate circumstances. Twilight's Harry Ross, like the classic detectives of yore, tracks the truth. The most that he gains is a little more awareness of the pervasiveness of sin, and a way to pass the time before the sun completely sets.

--Noel Murray


Screen kiss

When you look at an abstract painting and you see a human figure recast in an alarmingly unfamiliar way, do you ever imagine how our world must look to the subject on the canvas? It couldn't look any more stylized than the world in Alan Rudolph's crazily romantic movies, which avoid realism the way a vampire dodges sunlight. In jazzy fantasias like Choose Me and Love at Large, Rudolph's characters float through unnamed cities in a haze of torch songs and chance encounters and penny-dreadful regrets; at night a neon moon bathes their glistening streets. His films are so totally immersed in artifice that they go beyond a movie nut's dreams. They're more like a pulpy movie character's fantasy of what it's like to be human.

Afterglow, Rudolph's 15th movie, is a characteristic grab-bag of romantic obsessions, parallel stories, cinematic quirks, and plot twists that would seem ludicrous if the writer-director and his cast didn't give in to them so fully. In one story, a young stockbroker (Jonny Lee Miller, Trainspotting's Sick Boy) sequesters his love-starved wife (Lara Flynn Boyle) in a customized apartment that's a Jacques Tati nightmare of modernity. Across town, a former actress, Phyllis (Julie Christie), compulsively watches her old B-movies on TV--even as her husband, an amorous plumber played by Nick Nolte, tends to an ever-expanding clientele of lonely housewives.

That the plumber's name is Lucky Mann should be enough to tell you that Alan Rudolph has a streak of whimsy wider than Moon River. And it widens as Afterglow progresses: Lucky starts romancing the stockbroker's wife, and Phyl retaliates by taking up with a younger man--who turns out to be the stockbroker, natch. Just when you're losing patience with the musical-comedy plotting, however, the sad history of Lucky and Phyl's marriage comes to light, and their odd behavior suddenly takes on tragic significance. At that point, Rudolph's eccentric vision comes into focus, and his sleight-of-hand switching of farcical romance and enigmatic drama starts to work its magic.

As Phyl, Julie Christie is uncommonly broad; you can't tell where the character's overacting ends and hers begins, and her Best Actress nomination seems more like a reward for career longevity, the Oscars being something of a televised yearly tontine. But what a tender, multifaceted performance Nick Nolte gives as Lucky, the kind of irresistible rogue who melts women's resolve without even trying. Watch the scene in which Lucky unburdens his past, and you'll see Nolte segue from boyish charm to haggard sorrow in a single, subtly deepening scowl. Miller's cocky stockbroker is the least interesting of the four principals--even when his brogue surfaces at awkward moments ("moontain" for mountain)--but Lara Flynn Boyle is unexpectedly affecting in a role that requires near-instantaneous shifts of mood.

Afterglow was produced by Robert Altman, Rudolph's early mentor and career-long supporter, and there's more than a trace of Altman in the ready-for-anything tone, the fluid pacing, and the wandering camera set-ups. (Except when Rudolph's camera wanders, it has an annoying tendency to zero in on the speaker, the way a shampoo commercial always finds the perfect head of hair in a crowd.) But Rudolph's movie-drunk romanticism is his own. The ending of Afterglow is about as corny as movies get, even without Tom Waits gargling "Somewhere" on the soundtrack. And yet you're moved by how desperately the filmmaker wishes the best for his characters. If everything they've lost can be restored in the last second of screen time, Alan Rudolph will do it, because that's something only the movies can do. In a dream world, it's the dreamers who make the rules.

--Jim Ridley


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