Courtesy Photo
Opened: Friday, March 20, 1998
Rated: R

Directed by Joel Coen

Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Sam Elliott, Ben Gazzara, John Turturro, Tara Reid, Flea, Dom Irrera & David Thewlis

"The Big Lebowski"

Inside the minds of Joel and Ethan Coen is a wonderfully weird place.

It's the kind of place where, for instance, a naked surrealist painter might fly down a hallway harnessed into a track on the ceiling and nobody even blinks.

"The Big Lebowski," the Coen brothers' follow-up to "Fargo," has such a scene, and in the context of the movie it hardly seems weird at all. No surprise there, I guess. Even the Broadway production number with a Viking goddess and bowling pin chorus girls fits right in.

Why it fits in is a bit of a mystery. After all, this is a picture about The Dude (Jeff Bridges), a perpetually stoned ex-surfer who stumbles into a poorly planned kidnapping plot. But, like fiasco kidnappings, it's all part of the Coen mystique.

It seems The Dude shares his given name -- Jeffrey Lebowski -- with a millionaire whose 20-something trophy wife has been snatched. This coincidence causes some confusion among the none-to-bright kidnappers, who come to Dude's low-rent pad to rough him up for the ransom.

As The Dude, Bridges gives his best performance since "Tucker." He's the ultimate unkempt Los Angeles lay-about, who is positively content with a life of grocery shopping in his bathrobe and bowling with his beer buddies. He's centered, man, so just relax.

He tries to share this philosophy with his assailants, who will have none of it, and to get himself out of this mess he visits the Big Lebowski -- the millionaire -- who subsequently recruits him as a liaison to the kidnappers.

OK, man. Whatever. I'm cool, man.

Of course, Murphy's Law takes hold at about this point in the story, and The Dude's bowling buddy Walter (John Goodman), a Vietnam-obsessed veteran, hatches a hurried plan to keep the ransom for themselves by swapping it with his laundry and capturing the bad guys.

On the Coen meter, "Lebowski" hits closest to "Raising Arizona," with its overt, often physical comedy. The brothers employ many of their familiar tactics here, but nothing feels recycled.

Daffy, seemingly pointless irony runs rampant (the kidnappers are German Nihilist punks, for no explored reason). Seemingly normal incidental characters turn out to be completely nuts (The Dude's balding, paunchy landlord is an amateur ballerina). And eccentric, pivotal characters come out of the woodwork (Julianne Moore plays the aforementioned naked surrealist painter as some kind of performance artist with a mania for female genitalia).

But the Coen Brothers' genius has always manifested itself most in the tiny details, like the way they succinctly capture everything but the smell of a bowling alley through shots of middle aged men in Sans-A-Belt pants and a whimsical inside-the-ball camera.

The detail is there in the characters, too. The Dude doesn't wear socks with his bowling shoes and Walter's wild eyes are constantly darting around like he's expecting an ambush of Charlies at any moment.

The story gets a bit frayed in the last 40 minutes, after The Dude starts to fancy himself a sleuth and inadvertently draws another half dozen characters into the mystery. But the wonderfully droll performances carry "Lebowski" through.

Goodman nearly steals the movie as the trigger-happy, military maniac Walter, and Moore, one of the best actresses working in film, leads a talented parade of oddballs that includes Steve Buscemi as Walter's long-suffering sidekick and John Turturro as Jesus, a greasy bowling alley stud.

"Lebowski" may be the Coens' lightest and most forgettable movie, but it's also one of their funniest.

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