The beautiful scam that opened Joel and Ethan Coen's Fargo the disclaimer that passed off the movie as a true story was more than a stunt. It forced the Coen brothers to discipline themselves as moviemakers. In order to seduce us into believing that the events in the film might actually have taken place, they had to hold back on their favored style of manic overkill: the gymnastic camera movements and wide-angle acting, the dialogue that's too enamored of its own absurdist cleverness.
The very title of The Big Lebowski (Gramercy) announces that the Coens are now back to their old hyperbolic tricks. They give us a hero, Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), who's a walking one-liner, a slovenly, longhaired dropout from the stoned '70s who dresses in stained T-shirts and plaid shorts, smokes doobies and guzzles White Russians, and insists on being called ''the Dude.'' In scene after scene, we see the Dude hang out at the local bowling alley along with his derelict pals, notably Walter (John Goodman), a high-strung Vietnam vet who screams obscenity-spiked lines like a psychotic drill sergeant and turns out to be get ready to plotz with laughter an observant Jew. (''I don't bowl on Shabbes,'' he announces matter-of-factly.) We see the Dude mistaken for another Lebowski, a tycoon in a wheelchair (David Huddleston) who also yells a lot (the Coens are nothing if not fond of apoplectic power mongers). When this other Lebowski, the ''big'' Lebowski, discovers that his young porno-doll wife has been abducted, he enlists the Dude to deliver a million dollars to the kidnappers.
Virtually every Coen film has been structured as some sort of convoluted funhouse ride, and The Big Lebowski, with its hippie-out-of-time protagonist, wants to be a byzantine trip movie, an underworld-scuzz version of Alice in Wonderland. The Dude and Walter devise a half-assed plan to skim some of the cash, a plan that's destined to go horribly awry. This leads the Dude into confrontations with assorted wacko deviants. There's Lebowski's fake-aristo artist daughter (Julianne Moore, stretching out her vowels to the breaking point), as well as a trio of castrating German brutes known as the Nihilists. In an amusingly unhinged scene, these cartoon nasties let a marmot loose in the Dude's bathwater, but otherwise they seem little more than a gloss on Mike Myers' Dieter from Saturday Night Live. The Coens don't stop there. They throw in deliberately corny hey-I'm-flying-like-Superman acid flashbacks, John Turturro as a macho Spanish freak in a hairnet, David Thewlis as a giggling ninny with a John Waters mustache, and endless, dancing shots that loop and glide down the bowling lanes, tracing the pins as they fly, the candy-colored balls as they take their ritualized journey...
Nearly everything in The Big Lebowski is a put-on, and all that leaves you with is the Coens' bizarrely over-deliberate, almost Teutonic form of rib nudging. It's as if the film itself were standing off to the sidelines, saying ''Look, isn't this a hilarious concept?'' The Coens don't create jokes, exactlythey create ideas for jokes. Still, you can see what they're after. There's one sequence that blasts right into the ozone of sillinessa Busby Berkeley-goes-bowling musical number choreographed to Kenny Rogers singing ''Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).'' But the Coens' touch is rarely that light. It would have helped if Bridges' performance were wilder; his demeanor is actually too straight to do justice to the Dude's shaggy-dog effluence. Bridges looks so funky here you can almost smell him, but aside from dropping an occasional ''far out, man,'' he just sounds like good old wry, savvy Jeff Bridges. The very notion that the Dude takes in the world from a different latitude never quite comes across.
Like Fargo and Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski poses as a cracked tribute to middle America, whose denizens, in the Coens' view, are sanctified by their knuckleball eccentricity. Yet this stab at gonzo humanism just seems another put-on, since, in the Coens' filmsFargo is the rare exceptionthe characters are all but defined by their plastic separation from each other. In The Big Lebowski, even the Dude spews dialogue like a human ticker-tape machine, and too many scenes rely on such barely ironic jokes as John Goodman smashing a Corvette with a crowbar. The Coens' most prominent talent is for smashing everything in their path, only their tool of choice is mockery. It's a tool that, with terminal perversity, they're only too happy to turn on their own movies. B-