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Worth the Ransom

It won't be easy for Joel and Ethan Coen to top Fargo anytime soon, because it was the culmination and pinnacle of a personal style they had been refining for years. The small-time greed, hilariously bungled deceptions and startling violence they brought to their tale of kidnapping-gone-wrong in icy Minnesota added up to one of the most disarming black comedies in the history of movies. All the better that it was aptly held together by a pregnant police chief who wondered aloud about the price of the buffet at the Holiday Inn.

The brothers' new effort, The Big Lebowski, is entertaining enough, but it has an air of self-parody. To call it Fargo-esque may not be quite fair, but it's true. The Coens have traveled this road before, sometimes more vividly. If they're not in the mood for a different line of work, maybe some new shtick would do.

Lebowski's most reliable pleasure lies in another beautifully nuanced performance by Jeff Bridges, this time as a slovenly, pot-smoking Los Angeles layabout whose real name is Jeffrey Lebowski but who calls himself the Dude. A rumpled child of the 1970s, he still listens to Creedence Clearwater, drinks white Russians and slouches into the supermarket wearing ratty shorts and a bathrobe. There he writes a 69-cent check for coffee cream. Between acid flashbacks, he also meanders straight into the Coens' second staged kidnapping in as many movies.

The picture's other delight is the estimable John Goodman, a Coen regular since Raising Arizona and Barton Fink, as the Dude's buddy Walter Sobchak, a blustering Vietnam vet whose big mouth is always getting everybody into trouble. Walter talks tough and sometimes waves a .45 automatic around, but he's strictly a paper tiger, and his instincts about kidnappers and cripples are invariably wrong.

Talk about Coen-esque: The Dude and Walter would rather be bowling with their pal Donny (Steve Buscemi) than chasing after a million-dollar ransom. Bowling is their obsession. In fact, one of the Dude's favorite cassette tapes features nothing but balls rolling and pins crashing.

The Coens' obsession is, of course, moviedom itself. The Big Lebowski begins with a case of mistaken identity (the Dude is taken for the other Jeffrey Lebowski, a vain stuffed shirt confined to a wheelchair in Pasadena) and quickly mutates into a calculated jumble of old Hollywood genres--including the tough, noirish detective movie as derived from the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, the Flying Carpet fantasy and the physically destructive comedy of Laurel and Hardy.

That both Jeffrey Lebowskis (the second is played by veteran character actor David Huddleston) enter our lives in 1991, as George Bush is about to spank Saddam Hussein, matters not at all to the Coens. Ignoring clock and calendar, they even conjure up a dream sequence in which Bridges's scruffy Dude imagines himself the centerpiece of an elaborate Busby Berkeley production number straight out of the Thirties, featuring Julianne Moore (Boogie Nights) as a Wagnerian valkyrie. Naturally, the staging comes complete with a bowling theme. Hey, we said the guy had flashbacks.

The Coens' goofy plot is stapled together from some beautiful nonsense about the supposed abduction of the other Mr. Lebowski's steamy young thing of a wife, Bunny (Tara Reid), the connivance of a white-suited porn king named Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) and the calculations of the "Big" Lebowski's brainy daughter Maude (Moore), a feminist action painter whose working method consists of getting half-naked and swinging over a huge canvas on a kind of trapeze, sprinkling paint from above with each pass. There are also three German thugs who fancy themselves nihilists and order scrambled eggs in their native tongue. There's even a retired TV writer in an iron lung.

Getting the idea? Like the Ringling Brothers, the Coen Brothers know entertainment, and for them the best entertainment resides in hip, weird details that other moviemakers would never think of. To that end, they provide another array of side trips and diversions--John Turturro as a macho-dripping Latin bowling champ dressed head to toe in lavender, a pudgy slum landlord who fancies himself a modern dancer and, most peculiar of all, a drawling cowboy (Sam Elliott) who pops up in scene one as the movie's narrator and the Dude's guardian angel. "He's the man for his time and place," the cowboy assures us in no uncertain terms. Meanwhile, the Sons of the Pioneers warble "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" on the soundtrack, and an actual tumbleweed tumbles down a dark Los Angeles boulevard up there on the screen. Quite a start for what is to become, among other things, a mock film noir.

It isn't going too far to speculate that the Dude and the Coens have been smoking the same stuff or that their idea of comedy is, quite usefully, one part banana peel and two parts nightmare. We need only recall the hellish red hotel at the heart of Barton Fink or the surreal glee with which they watched Peter Stormare put a murder victim through a wood chipper in Fargo to realize that when they seem to be fooling around, they're really kidding on the square. No one this side of Quentin Tarantino can put such sting into a mere laugh.

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