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Coen Brothers' new film is a riot

The Big Lebowski

If there is one downfall to creating a great film such as Fargo, it's trying to top yourself the next time around. Of course, trying to top the 1996 Oscar winner was virtually impossible, and the previews of The Big Lebowski were an easy prediction that it wouldn't be nearly as good. However, the Coens have been known to surprise, and their range of comedy appeals to all sorts of audiences. Fargo was critically hailed as one of the year's best films, but many people think it was 1996's worst film (these are also the people who think William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet was the best).

The Big Lebowski follows in the path of the Coen Brothers' worst film, Raising Arizona. In my opinion, that is their only bad movie, and so upon hearing that The Big Lebowski was similar to that one, I grew dismayed. I just hoped that it wouldn't be as annoying as that one. Thankfully, it isn't. Instead, it's a comic gem which exemplifies the Coens' morbid sense of humor. This time around, it doesn't have the one memorable moment that the Coens are known for adding to their films. Fargo had the wood chipper, Blood Simple had the bullet holes, The Hudsucker Proxy had the freefall. However, as an overall film, The Big Lebowski can stand amidst those films proudly as a terrific cinematic achievement.

The Big Lebowski begins with an extended and long-winded narration (by Sam Elliott). From this one moment, we can tell the general direction in which this film will progress. As the narrator plods along in his monotonous, deep voice, he begins to lose track of thought, commenting that he can't remember what he was going to say. The Big Lebowski will overall become a film that not only entertains, but spoofs many of cinema's beloved elements. Everything from the narration to the surrealistic dream sequences, the Coens pack the film with ridiculous comedy moments, fully aware of how strange it really is. And yet, the film never travels into the absurd, which is what happened to Raising Arizona. The film stays within the confines of reality, while including coincidental oddities that create the central plot.

The Big Lebowski centers around one character: The Dude (Jeff Bridges). His real name is Jeff Lebowski, but he likes to refer to himself as Dude. Perhaps the main reason he refers to himself this way is because there is another Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston), or "The Big Lebowski." This Lebowski is a millionaire, and this confusion is what begins the film's plot. The Dude is probably the laziest person to ever grace Los Angeles. His most impressive aspect is his rug which merely "holds the room together." He is jobless, and spends his day at the bowling alley with his two pals Donny (Steve Buscemi) and Walter (John Goodman). His landlord reminds him to leave the rent under his door, and yet he probably gets away from paying it by attending the landlord's dance concert. Of course, this all changes when one day a couple of nihilists (Peter Stormare, from Fargo, and Flea) show up at The Dude's house. They urinate on his rug, and tell him to give them money.

Well, of course they are looking for the Big Lebowski, and The Dude is angered over the confusion. Taking advice from Walter, he storms over to Lebowski's home and demands to be reimbursed. Lebowski tells him to get lost, but not before The Dude steals one of his rugs. On the way out, Dude runs into Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), the sex-crazed wife who happens to be nearly thirty years younger than her husband. However, when Bunny goes missing and a ransom note appears, Lebowski summons Dude to drop off the money. Of course, this is a Coen Brothers film, and it only takes a few minutes before everything begins going wrong.

The Coens are known for their wild and outrageous sense of humor. Only in a Coen brothers film could you find a nude artist who expresses herself by flying over her canvases and throwing the paint down. This character, Maude (Julianne Moore), is the daughter of Mr. Lebowski, and she resents her father trying to pay for her step-mother. Maude feels that sex is based on love, while Bunny uses it as a way to gain money. Of course, Bunny needs the money to pay for the debts she owes directors of porn films in which she starred in. Maude believes that Bunny has merely kidnapped herself in order to collect the million dollar ransom.

Since their wonderfully-crafted debut Blood Simple, Joel and Ethan Coen (not to be confused with Joel Cohen, who co-wrote Toy Story) have crafted many films that each explore serious subjects in a light matter. Probably their darkest subject was in Fargo, but the way they went around that one is by approaching it seriously, beginning with a statement that the film was based on a true story. Instead of going for wild, over-the-top stunts, they had to remain down to earth, relying on the strange situations and characters to add humor. The Big Lebowski marks their return to mad camp humor, and while it isn't nearly as fulfilling as Fargo was, it quickly becomes appealing to watch. Don't expect to think about the film afterwards, because most of it is just silly fun.

As for the overall quality of the film, the Coens have improved each time. Their last four films all had a sleek appearance to them. Miller's Crossing's production values were top-notch; Barton Fink used strangely surrealistic settings, with halls that seemed to go on forever, and wallpaper that peeled off the walls. The Hudsucker Proxy is probably their most ambitious film to date, with eye-popping sets and visuals. Then there was Fargo, a film which will ensure the longevity of the Coens' careers. The Big Lebowski includes many colorful locations and sets. The bowling alley is the centerpiece of the film, providing some stunning cinematography (during one surrealistic moment, we actually get to see a bowling ball traveling down the lane from inside one of the holes). The costumes are ripped from the 70s and 80s, complete with hip shoes and tight clothes. And of course, the surrealistic dream sequences include one hilarious spoof of an adult film, complete with a Busby Berkeley-like dance sequence. Only the Coens could get away with something like that.

The Coens are mostly known for two things: writing, and picking the perfect cast. The screenplay of The Big Lebowski isn't necessarily more about plot than it is about dialogue and characters. The Coens could equal Tarantino for producing smart dialogue that completely fits each character. The characters' words always seem almost too realistic. Buscemi's exclusion of the conversation is a truly hilarious moment as he tries to figure out what they were talking about. And that leads to the excellent cast. Jeff Bridges IS The Dude, a low-life who smokes marijuana all the time, while drinking and bowling. Bridges makes a seemingly unlikeable character pleasant to watch. The real treat here is John Goodman who after a disastrous turn in Blues Brothers 2000 regains his dignity. Goodman's portrayal of the Vietnam veteran is completely hilarious, and his interrogation of the 15 year old is a comic gem. Julianne Moore, fresh off from her Oscar nominated portrayal in Boogie Nights, plays her character with zest. Moore seems to take great joy in playing these wild, off-the-wall characters (of course, this one makes her Amber Waves look like a normal person). Buscemi is actually probably the most normal character of the bunch, though he still provides many jokes of the film. Sam Elliott shows up in two scenes as The Stranger, although his character is mostly just there for narration. Peter Stormare gives another impressive portrayal, completely opposite of the one he played in Fargo. However, it is John Turturro (a Coen regular) who steals the film, in his small but hilarious role of Jesus, a seemingly gay and obsessive bowler. A perfect cast for this incredibly wild film.

The Big Lebowski is suitably rated R for pervasive strong language, drug content, sexuality and brief violence. Yes, this includes full frontal female nudity, although it was merely obligatory. I was quite surprised that the Coens included this, as they normally go for the more obscure nudity. The language is extremely harsh and prevalent throughout the film. Then again, there's not as much as in a Tarantino film. Although a slight disappointment after 1996's best film, what can you expect? Hopefully, the Coens' next film will be more like Blood Simple and Fargo. No matter how you look at it, they are among today's best film makers.

***1/2 out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
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