The Big Lebowski (1998)

In the opening minutes of *The Big Lebowski*, a tumbleweed bounces through scrubgrass and greasewood on its way to the Pacific Ocean while The Sons of the Pioneers yodel a mournful "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." And that pretty much sums up *The Big Lebowski*, a drifting, staggering, windblown shaggy dog story. The shaggy dog at the center of this comic tale of crime and mistaken identity is The Dude (Jeff Bridges), a perpetually stoned bowling bum whose given name, Jeff Lebowski, is just one of his problems.

Jeff Lebowski is also the name of a certain millionaire (David Huddleston) whose trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reed) causes no end of trouble for the big Lebowski and the Dude. When thugs, employed by pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzarra) come looking for the millionaire, they find the Dude instead, and soil his rug in an unspeakable manner. "The rug really tied the room together," laments the Dude. His bowling buddies, Walter (John Goodman), a volatile Vietnam vet and observant Jew who totes a gun to the bowling alley and refuses to roll on Shabbes, and Donny (Steve Buscemi), perpetually three steps behind in every conversation, convince the Dude that the millionaire Lebowski should compensate him for the loss of his finely aged rug. Before long, the Dude is acting as bag man for Lebowski when Bunny is kidnapped by German nihilists (Peter Stormare and Flea). The Dude loses the money in a poorly planned scam conceived by Walter, which leads to complications that include being menaced by nihilists, thugs, pornographers, cops, VW Beetles, and Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), artiste daughter of the big L.

All of which makes the Dude just a tiny bit uptight, despite his strict regimen of weed and White Russians. The secret to the Dude's limited success, however, is that nothing sticks to him, or sticks with him, for long -- he is literally a roll-with-the-punches kinda dude, drug-addled synapses sputtering, leisurely cruising from crisis to crisis, perpetually, intentionally, constitutionally off-kilter.

This being a Joel and Ethan Coen film, the Dude isn't the only off-kilter element. The whole movie is permeated by the Dude's shambling, drug-addled perspective, bouncing willy nilly like a tumbleweed that touches solid, middle America ground ever so briefly before vaulting back into the giddy heights of fantasy and criminal ineptitude. Thus, the Dude's hallucinations, prompted by frequent blows to the head: a Busby Berkeley-style dance routine, featuring a bowling Valkyrie and Kenny Rogers singing "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Is In)," and a flying carpet sequence with Dylan droning "A Man Like Me." Thus bowling arch-nemesis Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), a hair-netted, lavender-clad conquistador freak of the lanes. Thus The Stranger (Sam Elliott), cowboy and sometime narrator of the Dude's tale, postulating that by his very lackadaisical nature the Dude is some kind of new American hero, a gutterball paragon of stability, steady, grounded, and fixed in his laid back, spacey, intoxicated way, while everyone around him is impermanent, changeable, reactive, and all worked up about large sums of cash and the whole Byzantine kidnapping business. The bowling, booze-guzzling, long-haired Dude is Homer Simpson without a job, a wife and kids, a happily slow-witted ubermensch for whom success is the occasionally achievable combination of the right song, the right drink and three strikes in a row. And if the Dude is a lot like Homer, *The Big Lebowski* is a lot like a live action episode of *The Simpsons* (minus TV censorship), both visually and narratively, which is to say that there's a lot to like about this perversely familiar slice of Americana.

*The Big Lebowski* is hardly the masterpiece that the Coen's *Fargo* is. It is more a throwback to their earlier films, especially *Raising Arizona* -- broad, comically loopy, stylized tales of crime and stupidity, with no discernible center of gravity, filled with chatty oddballs, narrative nonsequitors and a freeform plot that spins around no particular axis. The pace of *The Big Lebowski* is laid back and leisurely, but unlike the Dude, the movie is also sharp and witty, purposefully aimless in its narrative wandering. The Coens look at American life like two giggling kids turning over rocks to see what creepy crawlies are underneath -- that they always find something strangely fascinating, familiar and darkly funny says something either about America or about their particular, peculiar outlook, or both. In *The Big Lebowski*, the Coens turn over some rocks, then perform the film equivalent of juggling bowling balls: they manage to keep a lot of dense balls in the air most of the time, and every now and then, they throw in a hatchet just to keeps things lively.