Maybe it’s the way the Coen brothers tie everything together with bowling that makes this Los Angeles-based tale of burnouts, gun buffs, doobies, tumbleweeds, art, nihilism, porn, pissed-on rugs, severed toes, Saddam Hussein, attack marmots, Teutonic technopop and Bob Dylan — not to mention extortion, kidnapping and death — such a hilarious pop-culture hash. The Big Lebowski is the best movie ever set mostly in a bowling alley. Fans of director Joel Coen and his brother and co-writer, Ethan, may expect more, since the film is their first since Fargo, the 1996 classic that won the Minnesota boys a screenplay Oscar, a Best Actress prize for Joel’s wife, Frances McDormand, and a wider audience.
My guess is that the contrary Coens don’t want to be that accessible, much less loved. The Big Lebowski is quirky with a vengeance unmatched in Coenland since Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy. Jeff Bridges stars — not in the title role but as the little Lebowski, referred to by his bowling buds as the Dude. We know this because a cowboy narrator (Sam Elliott) bellies up to a bar to tell us, with the Sons of the Pioneers warbling “Tumbling Tumble-weeds” to set the mood. Don’t ask what a cowboy is doing in a film set in L.A. during the time of what the cowboy calls “our conflict with Sad’m and the Eye-rackies.” Like I said, it’s quirky.
The Dude moniker fits, since Bridges, who gives a performance of laid-back comic perfection, is playing a longhaired throwback to the 1960s. The Dude has made an art out of slacking. When not lolling around his dump bungalow toking or sipping White Russians, the Dude bowls with Walter (John Goodman), a Vietnam vet and gun nut who has been known to draw a loaded weapon during league play, and Donny (Steve Buscemi), whom Walter constantly berates for gross obtuseness.
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It’s a kick just to hang out with these actors. John Turturro also shows up, to uproarious effect, outfitted in a hairnet and the finest stretch polyester, as bowling champ and known sex offender Jesus Quintana. “That creep can roll, man,” says Walter in admiration. You hardly need a plot with these guys, but the Coens supply one. Thugs break into the Dude’s bungalow, shove his head in a toilet and demand money that he allegedly owes to porn czar Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara). An error has been made. The not-too-bright thugs have mistaken the Dude for the fat, wheelchair-bound Pasadena tycoon Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston), whose hot trophy wife, Bunny (Tara Reid), has been on the take from Treehorn. Worse, one thug has peed on the Dude’s carpet in contempt.
Goaded on by Walter, the Dude demands carpet compensation from the Big Lebowski, who brushes him off with the help of his officious assistant Brandt (the invaluable Philip Seymour Hoffman). The Dude merely lifts one of the old man’s Persian rugs and heads out to find Bunny by the pool, painting her toes emerald green. “Blow on them,” says Bunny, wiggling her foot and seemingly oblivious to her nihilist boyfriend, Dieter (Peter Stormare), who is sleeping on an inflatable pool chair.
Some plot, huh? And it thickens. Julianne Moore registers strongly as Maude, the Big Lebowski’s artist daughter — she rides naked in a harness and flings paint on a canvas. Maude may or may not be involved with the angry marmot that gets dropped into the Dude’s bath, and with the kidnapping of Bunny. A severed toe with green nail polish is found, along with a ransom demand for $1 million. The Big Lebowski hires the Dude to make the drop. Instead, the newly decisive Dude steals the money with the help of Walter and hides it in the trunk of his car, which is stolen by a teen-ager who leaves behind his homework and his address.
What’s up with these Coens? You could posit theories. Events have made the mellow Dude a man of action, echoing George Bush lecturing Iraq from the White House lawn: “This aggression will not stand.” Aha, so that’s why the film is set in 1991. As for the convoluted plot, it’s an echo of The Big Sleep, the Raymond Chandler novel that inspired the 1946 film noir with Bogart as L.A. private eye Philip Marlowe. Aha, so the Dude is awakening from the dark night of the soul in the decadent city of angels. Then there are the Dude’s dream sequences, spectacularly shot by Roger Deakins, with Maude dolled up as a Valkyrie and Bob Dylan singing “The Man in Me.” Aha, these expressionist techniques allow the cerebral Coens to assert raw, subjective emotions. Or what if The Big Lebowski is just the Coens acting smart and silly in one cunningly constructed package? Maybe all the allusions to art, literature, film and tumbling tumble-weeds are only meant to erupt in a burst of wicked fun. Hmm. Real good, then.