J. Mark Price
If you liked Fargo, the Coen brothers' Academy Award-winning, comedic take on a kidnapping gone bad, then you will certainly like The Big Lebowski. If you enjoyed Raising Arizona, another Coen film featuring the same dark humor and ill-fated kidnapping, then you will adore this. But for those of you who prefer the same mainstream bowl of cinematic cornflakes each time you feed, go see Titanic again.
Lebowski has a few gaping wounds, but the bleeding is tapered by some original scenes, the Coens' usual arsenal of interesting character roles and some very good scripting.
Before the obligatory kidnapping that seems to open most of the Coen brothers' dark comedies, there is a narrative voice-over delivered by a character who shows up in the film twice, for perhaps three minutes each time. Following this dry monologue, we are introduced to bowling, Coen-style.
The Coens are usually successful in doing parodies of anything they see fit, and the bowling league in the film is no exception. We meet Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) and his best bud Walter (John Goodman). The chemical make-up of their friendship itself provides the film with a running gag: Lebowski is a long-haired, peace-loving, self-described pacifist while Walter is a Vietnam vet with overblown military pride who advocates the use of force any time he feels it is called for.
The wonderful Steve Buscemi is here, playing the not-so-bright third man of this nutshack of a bowling team.
After the film drops into more complex levels, screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen return to these hallowed alleys every so often for a sorting out of plot details and more funny bowling scenes. John Turturro, another Coen regular, is on board and has some of the film's most side-splitting scenes as Jesus, the leader of a rival team.
The setup goes like this: One evening Lebowski is visited by two thugs, one of whom inexplicably relieves himself on Lebowski's prized rug. It turns out there is another Jeff Lebowski living in Los Angeles who happens to be filthy rich. At the enraged behest of Walter, Lebowski seeks out his namesake and compensation for his ruined carpet.
There are some inspired bits of filmmaking here and some refreshingly original scenes. The film is directed by Joel Coen, and he does a capable job. Some scenes are more affecting than others, and at times the lack of continuity and momentum is frustrating. But nearly every shortcoming is overshadowed by a well done bit of work at just the right time.
The film's biggest liability is Goodman's overwrought acting. The extreme military persona, and his likewise martial and covert solutions for Lebowski's ever- intensifying dilemmas, are initially very funny. But the sheer grating volume he gives his character becomes substantially irritating. It would have served the film well to tone down his manic excesses in a big way.
Bridges is fine in the title role. His performance is the least inspired of the bunch, but he does have a few good moments by virtue of the script, and he doesn't do anything offensive.