Two Coens in the Fountain

Jeff Bridges is so euphorically whacked as a social dropout in The Big Lebowski that you get a secondhand high just looking at him. Padding around Venice, California, in a T-shirt that barely covers his midriff bulge, he comes off like a beach bum who bowls instead of surfs. His nickname is "the Dude," a perverse moniker for a guy with a Sasquatch hairdo and washed-out pajamas. The film takes place seven years ago, at the time of the Gulf War; the Dude is already an anachronism. Every now and then he'll stretch his back or his hamstrings, but when he's not hitting the hardwoods he's mostly smoking dope and listening to classic rock. Bridges gives the Dude a textured fuzziness that wins the film its biggest laughs and imparts a second-to-second emotional authenticity to its jumbled, showoffy action. He's precisely what those aesthetic wiseacres the Coen brothers -- director-screenwriter Joel, producer-screenwriter Ethan -- need: an actor grounded in reality even when his character's brain is in the vapors.

The movie doesn't live up to Bridges, nor does it sink him. It's neither the clean strike Coen-heads expect after Fargo nor the gutter ball anticipated by Coen-phobes such as me. There's a rich idea behind this spluttering romp, and Bridges keeps cashing in on it. At the outset a couple of mysterious thugs invade the Dude's apartment. He winds up with his head in the toilet and a urine-stained rug, which totally bums him out. The rug, says the Dude, "ties the room together." It turns out that he has the same name -- Jeff Lebowski -- as a Pasadena civic lion (David Huddleston) with a debt-ridden spouse, Bunny (Tara Reid). Steamed up about his rug, and at the urging of his bowling buddy and self-styled conscience, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), the Dude arranges a meeting with the other Lebowski to request payment for damages. He becomes a pawn in a million-dollar plot involving the supposed kidnapping of Bunny, a nymphomaniac trophy wife with a background in pornography. Before long the Dude is dealing with a bunch of freaks, including a trio of German nihilists who once played in a rock group called Autobahn; a porno king named Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), producer of Logjammin'; and Lebowski's brittle, highbrow daughter Maude (Julianne Moore), who creates "vaginal" art and has a lofty vocabulary and living space.

In this company the Dude, a stranger in a strange post-Reagan land, is a rock of stability. Nearly everyone else has elusive or myriad identities; the Dude knows himself and tries to stay true to his essential Dudeness. He's the individualistic Western hero -- whether of private eye stories, or, well, Westerns -- reconstituted as a doper. (When a private eye refers to him as a "brother shamus," the Dude thinks he's referring to an Irish monk.) In one of the film's far-out felicities, an archetypal cowboy figure known as "the Stranger" (Sam Elliott) drifts in and out of the story, narrating and delivering bits of deadpan folk wisdom such as "Sometimes you eat the b'ar, sometimes the b'ar eats you." At the end he gives his blessing to the stoned protagonist: In a delicious summation that's part mock-Faulkner and part mock-Thornton Wilder, he muses, "The Dude abides."

After so many '60s types have repented their misspent youth, it's refreshingly brazen for the Coens to treat this character as a generation's touchstone. And it's fun to see this Venice Beach lazybones confront the overachieving Pasadena Lebowski. Bridges hits a note of casual presumption and doesn't let the blowhard plutocrat ruffle his Dude. The world may not owe the Dude a living, but it does owe him a decent rug.

What the Coen brothers owed the Dude was a better story. Whether they're striving to wow audiences with their bravura filmmaking or serving up snide Americana, the Coens strike me as arty schlockmeisters -- a hip, flip version of what those other slick brothers, Tony Scott (Top Gun) and Ridley Scott (G.I. Jane), would be if they made comedies together. The Coens are less Merry Pranksters than salesmen of their own cleverness. Their brand of visual humor has a wearying pop-out quality, like R-rated TV commercials; their stylized yarn-spinning relies on lighting, music, and tricky cutting to buttress characters who are no more than conceits. In the past the Coens have either built an airless fantasy world out of other movies (as in 1994's The Hudsucker Proxy) or re-created a real milieu in flat, snickery tones (as in 1996's Fargo).

In The Big Lebowski they've joined these two modes and call upon Bridges to tie it all together. Both the spoofy neonoir and the parody of life in L.A. are woefully scattershot (though I do love how the Dude goes to a Ralph's supermarket and pays for a quart of milk with a check). Not even Bridges can make sense of the Dude's blurry interactions. To cite the most obvious example: Why is this onetime antiwar activist hanging out with a crazed Vietnam vet like Walter? (It's not inconceivable, just undramatized.) The gifted Goodman struggles mightily but can't ignite this giant mishmash of a man. Walter does have inspired bits. He expresses his disdain for nihilists by comparing them unfavorably to Nazis, who (he declares) had "an ethos," and in an American-movie first, he yells, "Shomer Shabbos!" at the top of his lungs to announce that he strictly observes the Jewish Sabbath.

The Coens want to contrast the Dude, who's stuck in the past in some benign way, with Walter, who's stuck in the past in a disastrous way, always geared for action and constantly replaying 'Nam. But the concept is more piquant than the outcome; Walter's presence is too bludgeoning. Framed as a still, silent group, Bridges, Goodman, and Steve Buscemi (the good-natured third guy on their bowling team) are funnier than they are in action. The one outright riotous moment comes early -- the first sight of the Dude pumping like a stoned drum major to the First Edition's "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)."

The movie's pleasant and unpleasant surprises tend to cancel each other out. For every unexpected graceful cameo (like Christian Clemenson as an incongruously sweet-tempered police officer) there's a miscalculation or a misfire. John Turturro has an uproarious buildup as a crazed bowler and convicted pedophile -- too uproarious for a part without a payoff. (He's apparently Hispanic, but he pronounces his name, Jesus, with a hard J.) And how are we to respond to the tubby would-be ballet star? Or the nihilists chattering away in accents that sound like Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon doing their Schwarzenegger clones Hans and Franz on Saturday Night Live? It's the kind of failed pop dada that makes you cry uncle. The Coens are more successful here with mundane material -- Bridges does the giddiest slovenly stoner slapstick since Cheech and Chong in 1978's Up in Smoke. In traditional shaggy-dog stories, the shagginess comes in the punch line. Here, thanks to Bridges, the shaggy dog is smack in the center of things.

The Big Lebowski.
Directed by Joel Coen. Written by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, and Steve Buscemi.

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