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The Big Lebowski

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: The Big Lebowski

Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman
Director: Joel Cohen
Rated: R
RunTime: 117 Minutes
Release Date: March 1998
Genres: Comedy, Mystery, Suspense, Independent

*Also starring: Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reid, Philip Moon, Mark Pellegrino, Peter Stormare

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

In their uniquely idiosyncratic style, the Coen Brothers take on the issue, "What is the state of American civilization today," offering gems of insight that would make even Max Lerner proud. Or, as John Goodman in the role of the Polish Catholic character Walter Sobchak suggests pessimistically enough, what has become of "3000 years of Jewish civilization from Moses to Sandy Koufax?" (As in "Barton Fink," another creation of the Coen brothers, "The Big Lebowski" is most promising when John Goodman is on the screen.)

It's not that "The big Lebowski" is a tightly structured work delving into the essence of life. Quite the contrary. "The Big Lebowski," which features Mr. Goodman is a broadly diverting role and Jeff Bridges in a luminary performance as the picture's eponymous character, has hardly a plot at all. Then again, story line is not important, taking a back seat to a series of Saturday-Night-Live type sketches which work far more often than not, sending up our use of language as a means of avoiding connection, noting our inclination to root ourselves in the norms of the era in which we grew up rather than in the present, and celebrating genres of Hollywood moviemaking particularly the noir, which has been enjoying quite a revival of late.

When you note that Ethan Coen did Philosophy at Princeton and his brother Joel studied film at N.Y.U., you can better appreciate where this movie is coming from. Sharing a platform more with the Coen Brothers' critical washout "The Hudsucker Proxy" than with their considerably more successful "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski" is philosophy with a Mel Brooks bent and a visual sense which manipulates both current movie technology and Freudian rhapsodizing. Substance is minimized: style rules. If that doesn't bother you, prepare for over two hours of good, albeit largely sophomoric, fun.

The picture centers on Jeff Lebowski, aka Dude (Jeff Bridges), a laid-back, unemployed Californian. Dude's idea of culture is a 1960s mentality complete with an occasional toke on the weed, a relaxed mode of dress emphasizing baggy shorts and ulta-casual shirts, and an almost religious dedication to the bowling alley where he competes in tournaments with his buddies Walter (Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi). The narrative--such as it is--is propelled when a case of mistaken identity sends two goons to Lebowski's shabby Venice digs to collect a debt allegedly owed by his trophy wife, Bunny (Tara Reid). But the ruffians haven't a clue that the man they should be after is the other Lebowski (David Huddleston), a rah-rah, achievement- oriented tycoon confined to a wheelchair because of an injury he received in Korea, contemptuous of anyone who has not been able to "make it" in our society.

Hired by the rich old man to act as courier of ransom money to kidnappers who have reportedly taken Bunny into their custody, Dude is conned by his friend Walter into double dealing, a plan to keep the million in payoffs for themselves. Meeting the old man's daughter Maude (Julianne Moore), Dude gets an education in erotic artistry, is introduced to a porno publishing supplier (Ben Gazzara). Subjected to episodes of beatings and in one case the victim of a spiked version of his favorite drink, the White Russian, he submits to a series of wildly adventurous dreams involving his flying through the air in a variety of circumstances.

The Coen brothers have even more fun with their dialogue than with the imaginative visuals, making fine use of the talent of John Turturro as a macho pederast who frequently threatens the buddies and a trio of so-called nihilists who act as the kidnappers, demanding ransom whether or not they actually committed the abduction. Some audience awareness of the pop California culture of the 90s would be helpful to appreciate the Coens' ripostes on performance artists and the ways in which we delude ourselves regardless of education, cultural and religious background, and the nature of humankind. Jeff Bridges shines in every scene as a modern Everyman ironically put into situations that defy his relaxed outlook on life in a film that may be instantly forgettable but should keep you grinning for a couple of hours. Rated R. Running Time: 127 minutes.

Copyright 1997 Harvey Karten

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