Joel and Ethan Coen’ s The Big Lebowski (Polygram) is a return of sorts to the edgier style of film-making that they seemed to completely abandon in their last feature, the phenomenally overrated Fargo. While this new film has much to admire, it’s more of a return to the hit and miss style of Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy than the finely tuned black comedy of their finest film Barton Fink.
Jeff Bridges plays Jeffrey Lebowski, a perpetually unemployed hippie bowler and ex-Metallica roadie who calls himself “the Dude.” When a pair of thugs breaks into his house demanding money and urinating on his rug believing him to be a millionaire philanthropist also named Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), the Dude decides he should be compensated for his trouble. He goes to see the reclusive millionaire Lebowski, who asks Dude to be the bag man for a ransom delivery of a million dollars for his young porn star wife. Dude accepts, but makes the mistake of telling his bowling buddy Walter (John Goodman), an angry Vietnam vet who decides the best thing to do is to give the kidnappers his dirty laundry and take the million for themselves.
Consequently, the million is stolen (along with Dude’s car) and Lebowski’s daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore), an avant-garde artist offers Dude a hundred-thousand dollars for the return of the ransom money, which she believes Lebowski’s wife is simply embezzling….
This is only the bare-bones of the outrageous and funny plot, which also involves a German porn star/art rocker, a wealthy pornographer played by Ben Gazzara, a mysterious cowboy narrator played by Sam Elliot, and a convicted sex-offender and bowling rival named Jesus, played by John Turturro â€“ all freaked out denizens of L.A. in the early 90’s .
The film wasn’t nearly as successful as it should have been, and as risky as it seems, it still feels like the Coens are holding in the reins here, lest they alienate the audience. A pity, because a lot of it works just fine. The film has a beautiful, glossy look to it. So glossy, in fact, that in some of the dream scenes it has the cartoonish look of a Frank Tashlin film.
The camera work is typically flashy, and there’s some fine use of music, too (you have to admire a film that uses both Captain Beefheart and Yma Sumac on it’s soundtrack).
The performances by the actors, however, are another matter entirely. Bridges and Goodman seem too caught up in their mannerisms to be effective. Moore’s part (like so many female parts these days) is underwritten. There are also hints here and there of an epitaph for the 60′ s and the Vietnam generation at the dawn of the Gulf war, but none of it connects. Indeed, a couple of early scenes where fish-out-of-water Dude visits Lebowski’s mansion reminded me (albeit fleetingly) of Ivan Passer’s 1981 Cutter’s Way (also with Bridges), a film that remains pretty much the final word on the death of hippie idealism.
Still, a film that has this much creative punch is well worth a look, is only for some truly bizarre moments, like a musical bowling fantasy set to Kenny Rogers and The First Edition’s “I Just Dropped In To See What Condition my Condition Is In.”