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The Brothers Freak

THE BIG LEBOWSKI Directed and written by JOEL COEN Produced and written by ETHAN COEN StarringJEFF BRIDGESJOHN GOODMANJULIANNE MOORESTEVE BUSCEMIDAVID HUDDLESTON and PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN Released by Gramercy Pictures At selected theaters

The Big Lebowski is an amiable mess about L.A. and the importance of being nobody - an agreeably anarchistic conceit, especially for a city in which to be nobody is to be as good as dead. Directed by Joel Coen, who wrote the screenplay with his producer-brother, Ethan, it's the most aggressively low-concept feature the pair have ever made and, along with Fargo, their most disarming. The story pivots on a guy called "the Dude," who inadvertently finds himself caught up in a family intrigue that plays out like a foggy memory of The Big Sleep, except that the central characters are a couple of bowlers whose SloCal Weltanschauung owes considerably less to Bogart and Bacall than to Cheech and Chong.

The Coens have built their reputation on meticulously crafted genre send-ups. The irony is that with most of their efforts, they end up more trapped than liberated by the logic of genre. That's why their nominally disparate pulp hits Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing, and even a disaster like The Hudsucker Proxy (which take on noir, the gangster picture and screwball comedy, respectively), feel so airless, suffocated. In all of these films, the brothers are so busy attending to the details - throwing artful shadows across walls, swallowing up characters with monumental sets - that they forget that great genre directors invariably riff on form, even if they don't altogether break away.

In The Big Lebowski, the Coens don't cleave to genre, they dip in and out, sampling the western, detective fiction, populist comedy and even musicals with newfound informality (there's a faint hint of Capra-corn too). The film opens with a traveling shot of a tumbleweed, accompanied by John Ford's favorite sextet, the Sons of the Pioneers, singing "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." The tumbleweed, which isn't so much drifting as steadily trucking, bounces from desert scrub to teeter at the edge of L.A. before landing on the shores of the Pacific. "Way out west," drawls the narrator, lives a man named Jeff Lebowski, known familiarly as the Dude. "He's the man for his time and place," says the voice (TV cowboy Sam Elliott), "quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles."

Soon after, the Dude (Jeff Bridges), a man of no visible means who's first seen flapping around a supermarket in a robe and slippers, finds himself in the employ of a rich guy in a wheelchair, improbably also named Lebowski. For reasons that never make sense, the Big Lebowski (the generously proportioned David Huddleston) hires the Dude to find his wife, Bunny (Tara Reid), a giggly nympho gone AWOL. The wonderful Philip Seymour Hoffman is the Big Lebowski's toady, while John Goodman as the Dude's best friend, Walter, and Julianne Moore as the Big Lebowski's daughter, Maude, each take turns playing Bacall to Bridges' nicely mellowed Bogart.

The Coens' first movie about L.A., Barton Fink, ended with a firestorm in which Hollywood became a raging metaphor for the Holocaust - or perhaps it was the other way around. The Big Lebowski is far less ambitious than Barton Fink, but it's also easier to take; it doesn't beat you up with ideas or exhaust you with style. It's as if the Coens have finally given up trying to prove that they're smarter than the movies - or at least smarter than everyone else making movies. As a consequence, Lebowski is by far the least punishing of their films: There's no gross-out murder to fry your nerves, or cartoon twist to make you think the filmmakers are in on some extraordinary joke to which you could never be privy. It's the closest they've ventured toward likability.

The movie is funny, but its humor generally oscillates between dopey shtick and crude slapstick; also new for the Coens, it's silly rather than mean. Outside of a scene with a wet marmot, the only times it soars into the flat-out inspirational are a goofy musical interlude, and a dazzling cameo by John Turturro as the Dude's bowling rival, Jesus, a color-coordinated fiend in crotch-enhancing leisurewear. Most of the rest of the cast are less bright, including a wasted Steve Buscemi, an equally wasted David Thewlis, and Goodman as Walter, a Vietnam vet and converted Jew. Goodman starts off promisingly ("I told that fucking Kraut I don't roll on Shabbes") but soon runs tediously amuck. Staking the sole female claim to the Dude's affections, Moore makes the best of an inane art-world cliche (she paints in midair, suspended by wires), but for some reason is directed to masticate her lines with the same staccato that waylaid Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy.

It's a sure bet that the stoner humor in The Big Lebowski will prove as unbearable to some as Benny the Shmata's sniveling in Miller's Crossing, or Fargo's wood-chipper finale; the movie already has a bad rap with preview audiences and reviewers. Comedy is easily the most subjective of genres, and your reaction to the film may depend on your own personal drug history and whether you think a guy dropping a lighted joint in his lap is intrinsically funny. That the guy dropping the joint is played by Bridges at his shaggiest helps to make a silly moment zing, as does the sound of the actor woo-wooing like one of the Stooges as he front-ends his car.

The film would be nothing without Bridges; like Frances McDormand in Fargo, he's an invaluable straight man. He's also the only character who connects The Big Lebowski to a world of real human feeling. Whether he's blissing out on his living-room floor or wiping milk from his mustache, Bridges is the film's emotional center, its moment of truth. There's a level of perversion, certainly, in casting one of the greatest American actors in so trivial a part, but it's also smart. Bridges has so much native charm and grace that he can endure the Dude's crucible of indignities - his head gets stuffed in a toilet, a cup bounces off his forehead, he gets tossed out of Malibu - in a way few actors could. Even as he shrugs off the insults and refuses to compromise the character with false nobility, never once does it seem like he's playing a loser.

The Dude doesn't take the indignities too seriously, because he doesn't take anything too seriously, including himself. The Coens are making a point, though not a terribly deep one, something about values, Los Angeles, avarice and ambition. They also seem to be trying to say something about the '60s - both the Dude and Walter are refugees from that decade - but it never fully coheres. The Dude is a throwback, a fossil. He says he helped draft the Port Huron Statement ("the original, not the compromised second draft"), but it's likely the Dude never joined Students for a Democratic Society or anything else meaningful; still, more importantly for the Coens, neither did he follow SDS's ranks into the leisure class.

That's not revolutionary, but given what most American movies stand for these days, it is weirdly consoling. In a strangely prescient move, the Coens have set the movie in 1991, and while TVs flicker with images of Hussein and Bush, the Dude shambles along on another front, an unlikely soldier in a struggle between the haves and have-nots - with mansions, convertibles, bubble blonds, well-muscled goons, the Eagles and fistfuls of cash on one side, and bowling, bowling buddies, a soiled Persian rug, Captain Beefheart and depleted funds on the other. Whatever else The Big Lebowski is about, it's hard to resist a movie in which the hero's greatest virtues are loyalty and sloth.