Academy Awards, box office dividends, the trappings of fame and fortune, the Coen Brothers have been dancing with the devil of late - Fargo's successes supposedly introducing the brothers grim to the rapt world of the commercial big time. Their immediate reaction, naturally, was to laugh in the face of populism and follow Fargo's black on white trickery with a film as peculiar, original and unstintingly inventive as any on their twisted CV. Hollywood will be as perplexed by their genius as ever, this is a movie that will only make perfect sense if you happen to possess Coen genes. No need to trouble yourself, mind. Just sit back and let The Dude be your guide.
The Dude Lebowski (Bridges) is "a man in whom casualness runs deep", a '70s fallout, hippy-child grown old but not wise as he gets unwittingly caught up in a wifenapping drama after being mistaken for a millionaire, The Big Lebowski. Egged on by his brute buddy, the ineptly psychopathic Vietnam vet Walter (Goodman having the time of his life) - one third of the Dude's bowling triumvirate, made up by the sappy Donnie (Steve Buscemi playing way against type) - he seeks reparation and becomes one of the multitude of parties that wheel in and out of the ensuing vortex of double-cross, treble-cross, extortion, carpet pissing and torture by marmot.
It's a pastiche of Raymond Chandler's labyrinthine noir, anchored not in the hard-bitten Bogart but the quixotic pothead Bridges (perfectly cast), floating (quite literally in the magnificent Busby Berkeley stylee dream sequences) from one nexus of disaster to the next. All the familiar Coenisms are present and correct: the delicious ear for the nuance of language, the humdrum milieu (Venice Beach, LA) transformed into an ethereal alternate-world of lavish detail and a set of characters that rests comfortably between excess and insight, each as rich and unforgettable as anything from their previous odysseys. Try Julianne Moore's pseudo-European feminist art freak, Peter Stomare's German synth rocker-cum-porn star nihilist or John Turturro's outrageous convicted child-molester turned bowling alumnus Jesus (as presented in slo-mo to the twangs of a Latino trilled Hotel California) for character novelty.
Visually director Joel has surpassed himself, surreally complementing the fervid script with a trippy beauty. The film's central motif, the leisurely pursuit of ten pin bowling, is transformed into something lyrical and wondrous in a stream of elegant longeurs. The man even sticks a micro-camera inside a bowling ball to dizzy the whole audience momentarily.
For those who delight in the Coens' divinely abstract take on reality, this is pure nirvana (cross Blood Simple with Raising Arizona if you must), yet beyond the hysterical black comedy, scattered violence and groovy dialogue, there sounds the same song to human goodness which enriched Fargo. In The Dude's easy riding, people-loving approach to the mess of his life, you are witness to something no end of $200 mill sinking tubs could touch upon. In a perfect world all movies would be made by the Coen brothers.