Hot directors coming off major successes often follow up with quirky, more idiosyncratic pictures and so it is with the Coen brothers’ follow-up to “Fargo.” Spiked with wonderfully funny sequences and some brilliantly original notions, “The Big Lebowski,” a pseudo-mystery thriller with a keen eye and ear for societal mores and modern figures of speech, nonetheless adds up to considerably less than the sum of its often scintillating parts, simply because the film doesn’t seem to be about anything other than its own cleverness. World premiered at Sundance as a special screening, this Gramercy release looks headed for a mixed critical and luke-warm B.O. reception upon its release in March.
Not really a detective story, but taking the form of one with its v.o. narration and plot loaded with kidnapping, missing money, violent thugs, sultry women, wealthy society figures with shadowy motives, colorful fringe characters, convoluted twists and turns, and evocative L.A. settings, pic throws several marginal middle-aged men still mentally stuck in the ’60s into a more mercenary ’90s context.
Disjuncture supplies plenty of amusing cultural frissons, but nothing carrying any meaningful insights or commentary, resulting in a work whose many momentary pleasures almost immediately afterward seem hollow and without resonance.
A good example of this is the wonderful title sequence, in which, to the accompaniment of the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” some beautifully choreographed camera moves follow an actual tumbleweed as it travels across L.A., ending up on the beach. Very funny in a classically absurdist way, yes, but it has nothing to do with anything else in the picture and therefore just stands on its own to take and then leave.
Story clicks in immediately thereafter, when the Dude (Jeff Bridges), whose real name is Jeff Lebowski and is described as probably the laziest man in Los Angeles County, is beaten up by two goons looking for a multi-millionaire known as the Big Lebowski, whose wife owes their boss money. The fact that the Dude lives in a ramshackle Venice bungalow doesn’t seem to have tipped the thugs off to the fact they have the wrong guy; and what pisses the Dude off the most is that, gratuitously, one of them urinates on his living room rug.
Sporting long hair, goatee and trademark baggy shorts, the Dude, goaded on by his Vietnam vet bowling buddy Walter (John Goodman), tracks down the other Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), a Pasadena philanthropist, and walks away with what he came for, a replacement for his damaged rug. While at the mansion, the Dude meets the old man’s young sexpot wife Bunny (Tara Reid), and it isn’t long before, to his astonishment, the Dude is paged by Lebowski to deliver a $1 million ransom for the return of his wife, who has been kidnapped.
In the interim, snappily paced film bowls a few frames with the Dude, Walter and their clueless pal Donny (Steve Buscemi), three low-lifes who spend every minute possible at the lanes. Donny is so slow he barely gets a word in edgewise, while the Dude and Walter, the latter an amusingly belligerent big bully who can scarcely engage in a discussion without dragging ‘Nam into it, constantly argue and berate one another.
Utterly sure of himself in the silliest military manner, Walter insinuates himself into his friend’s ransom return, then royally screws it up; everything he undertakes, in fact, is done with unquestioned assurance, and is completely wrong.
Not that the Dude has any better idea what’s really going on around him. The kind of guy who spends his free time smoking weed and listening to tapes of his own past bowling triumphs on his Walkman, the Dude’s laid-back, pacifistic stance toward life is fully expressed by his two favorite phrases, “Take it easy, man,” and “When something goes wrong, fuck it.” In fact, the way the many characters from different strata of life talk is perhaps the film’s most subtle yet outstanding attribute, as their speech patterns — be they ’60s hippie-ese, Reagan-Bush era pronouncements or up-to-the-minute street talk — represent a study in the avoidance of precise and direct verbal communication.
In the wake of the botched ransom drop, the Dude is pulled into the multiple schemes of Lebowski’s smart-tongued daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore), a provocative erotic artist; the clutches of a big-time porno publisher (Ben Gazzara); and has sordid run-ins with cops and more tough guys, as the fates of Bunny and the three bowling buddies play themselves out.
Along the way, there are some amazing — and literal — flights of fancy, as the Dude is seen soaring like a freaky Superman over Los Angeles and, later, in an imaginary erotic film, called “Gutterballs.” There is the torrent of verbal humor; any number of great and absurd gags, such as the soldier of fortune-like Walter turning out to be an observant (converted) Jew, and a soaking Dude being tortured by having an angry marmot tossed into his bath water. There are some brilliant cameos, most of all an astonishing turn by John Turturro as a flamboyant Latin sex offender who suddenly turns up at the bowling alley to threaten the boys with his prowess — at bowling and as a criminal.
Bridges throws himself into the leading role with glee, but the Dude is a character who produces an equivocal reaction; on the one hand, he is a classic ordinary man thrown into an extraordinary situation, while on the other he is a loser with no backbone who provides no motivation for the viewer to get behind him.
As the blustery Walter, Goodman is vastly entertaining, Moore is bracingly assertive in a nice change of pace role, and Philip Seymour Hoffman milks surplus laughs out of his part as Lebowski’s officious assistant.
With everyone clearly plugged into the Coens’ wavelength, entire cast shines.
Pic is technically immaculate, as usual with the brothers, with Roger Deakins contributing a standout job behind the camera and the numerous bowling scenes being ingeniously covered from every imaginable perspective. One of the film’s indisputable triumphs is its soundtrack, which mixes Carter Burwell’s original score with classic pop tunes and some fabulous covers.