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The Big Lebowski

The Coen Brothers do L.A.

In making The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers aren’t out to impose humanity on Los Angeles. Maybe it would be a form of postmodern hubris to do so. It’s a sick city. Because Fargo was set in the Coens’ native land, they developed those characters with uncharacteristic affection and empathy, and were thus able to appeal to the audience’s humanity -- we liked Margie and Norm, and we were able to see that stability, however boring, is fundamentally preferable to a life of violence and risk. In The Big Lebowski the same lesson is at work, but the Coens bring it home with the detached cynicism of earlier movies like Raising Arizona. It’s the same lesson we learned from Fargo, however: keep the unfamiliar things in your life to a minimum. They can only hurt you.

The story centers on Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), an un.ployed and ambitionless bowler nicknamed "the Dude," who returns home from the grocery store one evening, and is jumped in his living room by two enforcers. They nearly drown him in his toilet, urinate on his rug, and then realize that they’re looking for a different Jeff Lebowski. At the urging of his shell-shocked, high-pressure friend Walter (played in maddening glory by John Goodman), the Dude seeks out the other Jeff Lebowski -- "the Big Lebowski" -- a raging, handicapped millionaire with a beautiful and lecherous young trophy wife named Bunny. As the story progresses, the Dude is eventually hired by Lebowski and becomes enmeshed in a web of extortion and embezzlement, with the insane Walter along to foul up everything as they go. The film is a perfect cinematic allegory for Los Angeles: the story sprawls over an enormous area, no one can be trusted, and many of the most important scenes take place in cars.

The list of characters in the movie reads like an American Weirdo Field Guide for a foreign tourist: Maude (Julianne Moore), a venomous performance artist who says "vagina" to test the male comfort threshold, a German art band called Autobahn, who keep insisting on their unshakable nihilism, and the Malibu Police Chief (Leon Russom), the country’s hardest cop for the country’s softest community. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played a homosexual grip so beautifully in Boogie Nights, is extraordinary as The Big Lebowski’s red-faced toady. But perhaps the most notable is Jesus (John Turturro), a bowler and convicted pederast who has a penchant for purple jumpsuits and licks the ball before he throws it. Jesus is bound by sex offender laws to introduce himself and his disdainful sexual appetites door-to-door in any neighborhood he moves to. The Coens spare the audience the gruesome tension of actually hearing the introduction, but allow us to savor the ridiculousness as Turturro opens the gate to the yard, picks his way up the walk in his loafers, and rings the doorbell.

Where Fargo taught the value of s.plicity, The Big Lebowski teaches c.plicity: every time Walter and the Dude prove themselves again incapable of handling their situation, they end up going bowling. The Dude is possessed of the same capacity for indignation and self-preservation that we all are, and grows more and more outraged by his circumstances as the plot unfolds, but the genius of Jeff Bridges’s performance is that every time he’s on the verge of giving up, his softness bubbles through and he ends up "takin’ er easy," and bowling again.

The Coens have a remarkable sense of what constitutes the particular "guy" brand of stupidity, and in the Dude’s friendship with Walter, the film hammers home the importance of having a reliable bowling partner, even if he’s not a reliable friend. And it is the purity of bowling that provides shelter from the incredible confusion and frustration of the movie’s events. Slow-motion footage of enormous men casting bowling balls with precision and strength, their bellies bulging, made me sigh with relief after watching the Dude bounce from insane friend to volcanic millionaire to enforcer to sexpot. Because in bowling you always know where the pins are, and anyone can win.