The funniest thing in the Coen brothers’ comedy The Big Lebowski is a cameo appearance by John Turturro as a gay Latino bowler, a dandy of the lanes who urges on his ball with insolent thrusts of the pelvis. This egotistical madman – Jesus, his name is – wears a satanic goatee and directs ferocious carnal threats at the other players. What is he doing in the movie? Well, like other Coen brothers’ works – Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy – this new comedy could be called an epic shaggy-dog story. Just about everything winds up in it. There are abrupt, nutty jokes, surreal episodes, people flying through the air. The Coen bothers lyricize bowling, turning it into a slow-motion fantasia of heavily rolling balls and sultry pins. It’s fun, for a while, watching the Coens blow off the enormous discipline required to make Fargo, fun to watch them do any damn thing they please. The trouble is, the bowling-as-eros motif doesn’t really fit the rest of the movie’s portrait of the alleys as a refuge – a place where losers, dreamers, and blowhards form a little community and find peace.
The Big Lebowski is an off-kilter thriller with a sad-sack hero – Jeff Lebowski, known as the Dude (Jeff Bridges). The Dude shuffles through life in a fumy, pothead haze; he’s so slack-brained he can’t finish a sentence. He gets involved in a bizarre intrigue involving another man named Lebowski, a millionaire with a promiscuous young wife who may or may not have been kidnapped. Hired to deliver the ransom money, the Dude suffers a series of disasters, the result of his own ineptitude and the arrogant interventions of his friend Walter (John Goodman), a Jewish paranoid so hostile and aggressive that he misinterprets literally everything he sees. Goodman has his monstrous melancholy; he’s funny – a huffy elephant – but Bridges and Goodman stumble through far too many superfluous adventures together. It’s only amusing the first time the Dude gets lost in his own story – a story so incoherent that he can’t explain it to anyone. What’s the point of scoring off morons who think they are cool? Jeff Bridges has so much dedication as an actor that he sacrifices himself to the Coen brothers’ self-defeating conception. Even Bridges can’t open up a character who remains unconscious.