The Big Lebowski

on March 06, 1998 by Wade Major
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   If there is a common thread to the films of the Coen brothers, it is the degree to which they have managed to find a poetic soul beneath the idiosyncratic and frequently dysfunctional veneer of "Americana." If this quality found its defining moment in the Oscar-winning triumph of "Fargo," it finds its most bizarre manifestation to date in "The Big Lebowski," a curiously unfocused comedy which, despite an almost complete lack of even minimal structural integrity, still manages to be uproariously hilarious in uniquely Coen fashion.
   Like "North by Northwest" crossed with "Alice in Wonderland" by way of "Easy Rider," "The Maltese Falcon" and "After Hours," "The Big Lebowski" is less a coherent single film than an amalgamation of amusing anecdotes and episodes. What vaguely discernible story does exist centers on an expert bowler and lifelong burnout named Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), aka "The Dude," who is mistaken for the titular "Big" Lebowski (David Huddleston), a wealthy industrialist caught between the excesses of his free-spending nymphet wife Bunny (Tara Reid) and the scrutiny of his radical artist daughter Maude (Julianne Moore). No sooner has "The Dude" encountered his Fellini-esque namesakes than he finds himself at the center of an increasingly complex web of interlocking capers and mysteries, converged upon by a colorful assortment of oddballs and loonies.
   In addition to the various Lebowskis, the cavalcade of zanies includes a pair of dim-witted thugs (Philip Moon and Mark Pellegrino), a trio of pseudo-Kraftwerk techno-musicians/kidnappers/nihilists (Peter Stormare, Flea and Torsten Voges) and an porn producer (Ben Gazzara). Add, for good measure, the Dude's bowling buddies, the paranoid neo-fascist Walter (John Goodman) and the frail, gentle Donny (Steve Buscemi), along with some of the zaniest, off-the-wall dream sequences in memory, and the stage is set for what will arguably be one of the weirdest trips audiences will take all year long.
   Taken in bits and pieces, "The Big Lebowski" can be an enormously entertaining movie. It is not, unfortunately, a very satisfying movie. It is telling that the film's strongest elements -- the otherwordly flights of fancy through "The Dude's" twisted psyche, John Goodman's manic tour-de-force and an outrageous cameo by John Turturro as a lavender-clad bowling sensation and convicted pederast named Jesus Quintana -- are mostly peripheral to the central storyline. It is as though the Coens had hastily fabricated the scantiest of plots on which to hang the collective what-nots and white elephants of their imaginations. Thankfully, those imaginations go by the name of Coen.    Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore and Steve Buscemi. Directed by Joel Coen. Written by Joel & Ethan Coen. Produced by Ethan Coen. A Gramercy release. Comedy. Rated R for pervasive strong language, drug content, sexuality and brief violence. Running time: 113 min.
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