Dada, Dali, and the Dude

Feeling Minnesota...Not!: Jeff Bridges and John Goodman in Joel and Ethan Coen's The Big Lebowski.

TO WHAT DO we owe the pleasure of the Coen Brothers' new joie de vivre and love for their fellow man? Is it the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay that they won a year ago? Is it Ethan's new wife--or the real divine comedy of Joel's infant Junior with actress Frances McDormand? Is it the fact that both brothers have recently turned the big four-O? Or could it be that they've finally exorcised their dark Midwestern roots with Fargo and now feel free to groove on those good vibrations in sunny California?

Whatever the case, The Big Lebowski is the Coens' funniest and most visionary work to date, a Dadaist tall tale that carries the same blissed-out appeal of its own familiarly recurring symbols: a creamy White Russian, a ball of tumbling tumbleweed, a perfectly rolled strike, and a tightly packed joint. Speaking as a stubborn non-fan who just couldn't get with the celebrated "irony" of their last six films (apologies to the core audience), I'd say it's no coincidence that their finest hour is also their gentlest. For one thing, this sublimely absurd exercise in screwball noir ends with a sweet bear hug between a big guy and his main man--and not a hint of irony. It's almost as if the Coens took a page from Barton Fink, tore it up, smoked a doobie, and started fresh.

The Big Lebowski's mood of escapist fantasy extends to its setting in the past, way back in the days of what the film's drawling cowboy narrator calls "our conflict with Saddam and the I-raqis"--that is, 1991. Recall, if you will, that this was an era in which "naked aggression" would not stand. And so the burden is on "the Dude," a.k.a. Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), to act swiftly and with unmistakable force when some "Chinamen," mistaking the poor Dude for a millionaire named Lebowski, break into his dingy Venice bungalow, stick his head in the toilet, and pee on his rug. The General Schwarzkopf in this skirmish is Walter Sobchack (John Goodman), a bulky Vietnam vet with a hair-trigger who wears camouflage garb even when he's bowling with his laid-back buddy, the Dude. Naturally, Walter urges the Dude to draw a line in the sand: After all, this is a man who thinks nothing of pulling a pistol on a rival bowler for stepping over the foul mark.

Gulf War I notwithstanding, the Coens' chief inspiration here, as usual, is the chance to riff irreverently on a particular genre: Picture the Dude as Humphrey Bogart's Philip Marlowe, but with long hair and a goatee, baggy plaid shorts, dark shades, and a lime-green hooded sweatshirt. The free-associating narrative revives The Big Sleep as Freudian nightmare, with the Dude being hired by an old man in a wheelchair (David Huddleston) to investigate the kidnapping of his untamed trophy wife (Tara Reid)--who, upon meeting the Dude, offers to give him a blow job in trade for a thousand dollars. ("Just let me find a cash machine," he quips.) As the plot thickens, the Dude's Johnson comes under repeated threat, particularly from the old man's eccentric daughter (Julianne Moore), whose performance-art space is adorned with Dali-esque images of oversized scissors; and a motley gang of German "nihilists" who threaten to make the movie's castration anxiety literal. "Nothing changes," says Walter, thus putting these "anti-Semites" in tandem with the worst villains in history, and casting this film noir in the '40s-era fighting spirit of the Big One.

Coincidentally or not, Lebowski's other main bad guy is named Jesus--a Latin bullfighter-cum-bowling kingpin, played by John Turturro in a braided ponytail, purple jumpsuit, and Tony Montana-style accent. (One hopes this is meant as a parody of such caricatures rather than the thing itself.) Of course, the Coens' fondness for cartoon figures (to put it nicely) stretches back a lot farther than Fargo's local yokels, all the way to Blood Simple's simpleton schemers, the trailer-trash hicks of Raising Arizona, and Turturro's stereotypically wandering Jew in Miller's Crossing--the latter pleading, "Look into your heart!" while, per critic J. Hoberman, "groveling at the feet of a gun-wielding gangster (Gabriel Byrne) in a wood as bucolic as any birch grove in Poland."

The big difference in Lebowski is the filmmakers' palpable affection for their caricatures (nihilists not included). Even Jesus brings the brothers' over-the-top aesthetic to a new level of ecstasy, while the rhythmically insane, obscenity-laden dialogue spins in concentric circles around the fine art of saying nada. Whether it's because the Coens hail from these parts, the expression of true feelings has never been their characters' strong suit--or their own. But as Lebowski's climactic bear hug signals direct communication more warmly than anything in their oeuvre, I'd say the Coen Brothers have finally looked into their heart.

 
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