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Review: 'Big Lebowski' is fun, but won't bowl you over

"The Big Lebowski"   
March 5, 1998
Web posted at: 11:22 a.m. EST (1622 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I've been a huge Joel and Ethan Coen supporter since 1984's "Blood Simple," so it's with more than a little bit of consternation that I report on "The Big Lebowski," the brothers' hit-or-miss follow-up to their Academy Award winning comedy/drama, "Fargo."

The Coens are nothing if not perverse, so I've always sort of forgiven them for the erratic nature of their output. Warped classics like "Raising Arizona" and "Fargo," which, given their talent, should be the norm, have always stood out as exceptions.

What the far-reaching and (I'm more and more inclined to suspect) attention-challenged Coens usually deliver are visually and verbally inventive, sporadically exciting messes like "Barton Fink" and "The Hudsucker Proxy." You should go ahead and add "The Big Lebowski" to that list, but, in a Coen brothers first, you shouldn't expect too much on the oral front. For some reason, rampant, unamusing profanities have taken precedence over their usual warped wordplay.

To say that "The Big Lebowski" lacks focus is an understatement, and I don't want to hear that old war-horse about it just being entertainment, so you shouldn't expect anything else. Understand that the Coens are capable of churning out very peculiar but altogether sane pop cultural artifacts. That they're more and more taking the lazy-ass David Lynch route by simply throwing "weirdness" at the screen -- one of the oldest and least difficult tricks in the book -- is a real shame.

I laughed out loud a few times during "The Big Lebowski," and Jeff Bridges, as always, is very good, but after I write this review, I'll probably never think about the movie again. And I spend way too much time thinking about movies.

The Dude

Bridges stars as an L.A.-based stoner/bowling bum named Jeff Lebowski, who insists on being called The Dude. The Dude doesn't have a job, doesn't want one and generally tries to make it through the day by trying to make it through the day. Bridges apparently threw himself into the role, developing a highly uncharacteristic beer belly and letting his hair grow into an unruly mop. He imbues The Dude with something more than the California pot-smoker phrasings that became the accepted approach to this type of character after Sean Penn's hilarious performance as Spicoli in "Fast Times At Ridgemont High."

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This Dude is a leftover '60s radical who seems too tired to go on caring so much. He walks around in hideously uncoordinated clothes (Bermuda shorts with no socks is his basic uniform) and has never met a major problem that he couldn't shrug off in seconds.

That all changes, though, when a couple of muscle-bound henchman break into his apartment and urinate on his rug. That's what I said. It turns out that a local millionaire, also named Jeff Lebowski, has a porn star wife (Tara Reid) who owes money to some thugs, and they've mistaken The Dude for the Big Lebowski.

The Dude visits the millionaire (cartoonishly played, in the Coen tradition, by David Huddleston) in an attempt to get a new rug, but eventually, and for no good reason, winds up delivering $1 million in ransom money when the wife gets kidnapped.

Then The Dude's crazed Vietnam vet bowling buddy (John Goodman, also way over the top) gets involved and tries to keep the money for himself and The Dude.

Plenty of weird characters

There's also The Big Lebowski's daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore), a feminist performance artist who suspends herself, naked, from a system of pulleys while she paints. And I'm not even mentioning the German nihilists or John Turturro as a psychotic bowling demigod or Sam Elliott as the omniscient cowboy narrator.

Weird, huh?

"The Big Lebowski"   

I really don't know what to say about all of this. The Coens are not looking to tell a story, and they even insert completely extraneous dream sequences at inopportune moments, almost as if they're trying to goad you into throwing your hands up in despair.

As uniquely talented as they are, they really don't seem capable of learning a damn thing from their previous misfires. If you can't tell from the finished product or the miserable box office that "The Hudsucker Proxy" wanders around like it's got sand in its eyes and eventually drives its audience nuts, then you end up doing the same thing with "The Big Lebowski."

Yes, it's different. Yes, it's odd. Yes, it's got some laughs. For all those "yeses," though, it eventually adds up to an overly busy "no."

"Fargo" suggested that the Coens might be growing up a little, but now they've managed to drop back down the evolutionary ladder. Who knows which pair of brothers will show up for their next movie. I'll be waiting, but this might be the last time.

"The Big Lebowski" is way, way out there. There's a great deal of profanity, and overt drug use. At one point, Moore dons a Viking outfit that sports a bowling ball brassiere. It just didn't seem right not to mention it. Rated R. 117 minutes.

 
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