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'Big Lebowski': Rollin' a Strike

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 1998


Movie Scene Jeff Bridges (left) is Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski. John Goodman is his friend. (Gramercy)

Joel Coen
Jeff Bridges;
John Goodman;
Julianne Moore;
Steve Buscemi;
David Huddleston;
Peter Stormare;
John Turturro;
Sam Elliott
Running Time:
1 hour, 26 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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On balance, you could argue that the 1996 "Fargo" still outweighs "The Big Lebowski," the latest comedy from the Coen brothers. There's something about "Fargo" that really lasts. Maybe it's that grotesque shredder that juliennes its victims, or Marge (Frances McDormand), the pregnant detective with morning sickness, who kneels before an overturned car to retch, the snowy landscape of Minnesota behind her.

But there's too much fun in "The Big Lebowski" to quibble about such things. It may not have the staying power of its predecessor, but it has something indisputably its own: bowling! Bowling Coen brothers style, that is.

It has the perfect Coen brothers cast too: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and John Turturro. Picture these guys moping around a California bowling alley, contemplating the lanes before them with hangdog faces, weird verbal inflections and immensely tacky clothing. With this package you can't go wrong.

Bridges plays Jeff Lebowski, alias "The Dude." Lost permanently in the 1970s, he wanders around Venice, Calif., in a pot-suffused haze. He likes drinking White Russians, and he loves to hurl balls with his regular pals, Walter (Goodman), the loudmouthed owner of a security store, and Donny (Buscemi), a laid-back former surfer. In their screenplay for this movie, Ethan (also the producer) and Joel Coen (who directed) describe the Dude as "a man in whom casualness runs deep." They couldn't have put it better.

The Dude's life is rudely interrupted when two bruisers rough him up, supposedly to threaten him for his wife's gambling excesses. But the Dude isn't even married. It seems the thugs, who work for a mysterious man called Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), have mistaken him for another Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston), an old Pasadena millionaire whose wife racked up all that debt. To add insult to injury, one of them urinates on Dude's favorite rug.

This being a Coen Brothers movie, Dude finds himself embroiled in a kidnapping plot, in which Lebowski's people recruit him to deliver ransom money to the kidnappers. But when Dude solicits Walter's advice on the matter, things get even worse. Walter forces Dude to cheat the kidnappers of their lucre.

Now, everyone's chasing them. Dude just wants two things: his rug cleaned and the chance to bowl against his archrival, Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), a hotdog whose tight, high-waisted bowling uniform shows a little too much of everything.

The kidnapping scenario serves as a wonderful framework for characters who can only be described as Coenesque. Bridges has a princely dopiness that sits just right in this movie. But Goodman, whether he's listening to his bowling ball, dominating conversations with his hilarious arrogance or clamping on to one particular opponent's ear Mike Tyson style, is the breakout star of the show.

Julianne Moore is amusingly out there, as Maude, the richer Lebowski's eccentric daughter who takes a fancy to the Dude, and who stars in Dude's Busby Berkeley-style fantasy as a Valkyrie bowling goddess. You'll also meet three self-styled nihilists, played by Peter Stormare (Buscemi's nefarious partner in "Fargo"), Torsten Voges and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who dress in Monty Pythonesque black and, at one point, corner Dude in a bathtub and threaten his privates with a savage marmot.

With their inspired, absurdist taste for weird, peculiar Americana-but a sort of neo-Americana that is entirely invented-the Coens have defined and mastered their own bizarre subgenre. No one does it like them and, it almost goes without saying, no one does it better.    

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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