Dumb movie, smartly done Review: The Coen brothers' 'The Big Lebowski' is clever, caustic, imaginative and tiresome.

March 06, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Imagine Philip Marlowe as conceived by Cheech and Chong, and you get some idea of "The Big Lebowski," the boisterous, confounding new comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen.

With their signature visual antics and off-kilter world-view, the Coens have ricocheted out of the grave moral universe of "Fargo" into the flightier world of a pothead living in L.A. during the early 1990s. That temporal setting is crucial to "The Big Lebow- ski," in that it provides endless quotes from Persian Gulf War rhetoric, not to mention a social backdrop exploding into a thousand self-indulgent points of light.

By far the dimmest star in that constellation is one Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), a k a "The Dude," whose life consists of finding the next joint, White Russian or bowling game. We meet the Dude slurping milk from a carton in a supermarket, as a narrator poses the core question of "The Big Lebowski": What is a hero? "A man of his time and place," comes the answer. Suitably enough, the Dude is "the laziest man worldwide."

But upon his return from the milk-finding expedition, the Dude's purple haze of happy languor is violently dispelled by a couple of thugs who accost him at his funky Venice, Calif., bungalow and demand to know where "the money" is.

The Dude assures them he has no idea what they're talking about, and he's ready to forget the whole thing until one of the thugs relieves himself on the Dude's Oriental rug. Lebowski sets out to get redress, embarking on a journey that will involve mistaken identity, a kidnapping scheme involving a femme fatale with green toenail polish, a high-stakes bowling tournament, a group of nihilist bullies, a radical feminist performance artist and a dream sequence starring a bevy of Busby Berkeley dancers.

Oh, and a lot of marijuana and booze.

The wild imagination, camera acrobatics and caustic wit of the Coens are in ample evidence in "The Big Lebowski," but they are strained to the breaking point. Presumably the brothers just wanted to have a little fun after the grandeur and gravitas of "Fargo," the Oscar-winning dark comedy of 1996. But "The Big Lebow- ski" winds up crushing the audience under the constant pressure of its own vapidity, invective and volume level.

For inveterate Coen-heads, "The Big Lebowski" will be one long, delightful pastiche of recycled Coenalia (a tumbleweed drifting TTC through L.A. streets, much like the "Miller's Crossing" hat; Peter Stormare, fresh from playing the heavy-lidded villain in "Fargo," finally getting his pancakes; an overarching comic sensibility lifted from "Raising Arizona").

But for filmgoers who can take the Coens or leave them, "The Big Lebowski" will be a trial. For one thing, it lacks the sense of dynamics and pacing that graces the best of the Coens' work. Here, they turn the volume level up to 11 and leave it there.

The no-nuance policy seeps into the performances, as well: John Goodman, as Dude's addled, Vietnam-vet best friend, is a hulking volcano of strident profanity; his conversations with the Dude are little more than vulgarity-laced shouting matches.

As in all their films, the Coens populate "The Big Lebowski" with vivid supporting characters: Julianne Moore invokes the great female stars of the '30s as the imposing performance artist Maude, but there's not much for her to do past striking poses.

Steve Buscemi, as one of the Dude's bowling buddies, comes and goes without a whisper of interest.

Indeed, the best moments of "The Big Lebowski" are the most ephemeral: John Turturro as Jesus, the Dude's purple-clad bowling nemesis, and Sam Elliott as the mysterious Stranger who befriends the Dude and narrates his shaggy-dog tale.

What's missing from "The Big Lebowski" (apart from composer Carter Burwell's music) is the Dude himself. Bridges is a friendly, leonine presence, but he's basically a blank; following him on his perambulations is tiresome rather than picaresque.

Because it's by the Coens, "The Big Lebowski" is studded with visual and verbal jokes and flourishes, but ultimately they amount to pearls without a string. The Coens have thrown their considerable talents into making the world's smartest dumb movie, a dubious distinction that for their admirers will have to suffice, at least for now.

'The Big Lebowski'

Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore

Directed by Joel Coen

Rated R (pervasive strong language, drug content, sexuality and brief violence)

Released by Gramercy Pictures

Sun Score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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