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'Big Lebowski': Laughs to Spare

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 1998

  Movie Critic

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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Cynical shamuses become drug-addled doofuses and femmes fatales morph into devouring feminists in the Coen Brothers' hilariously defective detective spoof, "The Big Lebowski." Imagine Cheech & Chong bumbling about in Philip Marlowe's gumshoes, add a bubbling Busby Berkeley-style dream sequence and you've pretty much got the basic picture.

Loosely modeled on the notoriously convoluted plot of "The Big Sleep," Joel and Ethan Coen's kooky yarn twists and turns like a freeway cloverleaf. But unlike Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled pulp, the brothers' movie doesn't go anywhere and it isn't about anything, unless it's filmmaking. Or maybe bowling.

Haven't seen so many big round balls since ABC-TV stopped covering the pro bowling circuit.

The alleys of "The Big Lebowski" aren't shadowed or menacing, they're gleaming with varnish and alive with the satisfying crack of ball with pins. Courtesy of Roger Deakins's distinctive camera work, we roll with the hurled orbs, collide with the pins and return automatically only to make the trip all over again. And again.

Bowling, the Coens assert, is a metaphor for life. In their protagonist's case, however, bowling is life. Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), a laid-back pothead whose life is basically one long flashback, spends most of his time at the lanes with his obstreperous best friend, Walter (John Goodman), and the third member of their bowling team, Donny (Steve Buscemi).

The three buddies are preparing for a major tourney when the Dude's peaceful existence is shattered by a couple of goons who mistake him for aging millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleson). Lebowski's trophy wife owes their boss a wad of dough, but the toughs attempt to extract the money from the Dude.

Never mind that the pair find the affable idler in a comfortably run-down Venice, Calif., bungalow with yard sale furnishings. After treating the Dude to a couple of swirlies, one tough urinates on the Duke's beloved, albeit threadbare, Oriental rug.

"It really pulled the room together," laments the Dude, who is talked into paying a call upon the other Lebowski in hopes of acquiring a replacement. While restitution is not forthcoming, the Dude does walk off with a plush new Persian.

The newly liberated rug is subsequently stolen by a "vaginal" performance artist (Julianne Moore), the first in a chain of baffling events that keeps the Dude and his cronies occupied between bowling matches. Sadly, they never do get back to the tournament, which was to have pitted them against a gay Latino bowler hilariously acted by Coens regular John Turturro.

Sam Elliott, new to the Coens' stable, provides a laconic running commentary on the Dude's adventures. Known as the Stranger, he shows up from time to time to encourage the hero, but his primary purpose is to frame the story. Not that anything so fragile as a frame could hold this chockablock chucklefest together: It's not enough that the Dude is stoned on pot and White Russians, he's got to dream up dances with chorines in tenpin headdresses and Valkyries in breastplates formed from gilded bowling balls.

The movie is as visually inventive and wildly eccentric as the Coens' earlier movies, but it lacks the emotional maturity and moral clarity of 1996's "Fargo." Regardless of what befalls them -- even the death of a dear friend -- the characters remain the same from beginning to end.

The Stranger sums it up best in the self-serving epilogue: "It was a purty good story, dontcha think? Made me laugh to beat the band . . . Parts, anyway."    

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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