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On March 6, 1998, the Coen brothers unleashed The Big Lebowski in theaters, where it would become a cult hit and gross $46 million globally. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
The Coens travel from Fargo to L.A. by way of Arizona in this cracked comedy about a deadbeat Los Angeleno that played to standing ovations in its sneak preview during the weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. Starring Jeff Bridges as an L.A. loafer named “The Dude” and featuring John Goodman and Steve Buscemi as his two Stooge-like sidekicks, The Big Lebowski is a deliriously fractured film, ambitiously packed with bowling, bimbos and other great inspirations of latter-day thought. Closest in style and temperament to Raising Arizona, this Gramercy release should roll box office strikes with select-siters and score some winning spares with mainstream viewers.
Too old to be a slacker, the Dude wiles away his days propped up in his tiny abode, knocking back White Russians and getting in the right frame of mind for his next bowling-league tournament. He’s not exactly active and is greatly befuddled and upset when two brigands break into his dump, mistaking him for some big-shot named Lebowski, and take a warning piss on one of his rugs. It’s the sort of occurrence that inspires the Dude to action. He seeks out Lebowski — a wheelchair-bound, bitter rich guy — trying to get restitution for his rug. Not surprisingly, Lebowski has little patience for the spaced-out Dude, but coincidentally, Lebowski’s trophy wife has disappeared and he receives a ransom note. He enlists the Dude to make the drop; there’s 20 grand in it for him.
It’s a very straightforward assignment, and the Dude endeavors to fulfill. However, the Dude’s utter lack of ambition troubles his bowling buddy (Goodman), a paranoid Vietnam vet with a talent for misreading situations. Naturally, they screw things up, and all sorts of berserkos are now on their tail. Worse, the bowling is not going well.
Usually, one would have to take public transit in L.A. to encounter the kind of dangerous weirdos and offramp losers the Coens have crammed into this delirious ditty. Every form of human screwup seems to make an appearance, from nihilists to neo-Nazis. Like the Dude’s life, there’s not a lot of sense to be made of it all — which, of course, is the film’s thematic game plan.
For those of you who forgot how good Bridges was in The Fisher King, here is a reminder. As the gung-ho Nam veteran, Goodman’s tenacious, tightly coiled demeanor is smartly explosive and very funny, while Buscemi as the third Stooge brings a fitting Larry-like befuddlement to the role. As the frisky trophy wife, Tara Reid is a killer bimbo.
As ever, it’s the screwy textures, from Carter Burwell’s blowsy music to costume designer Mary Zophres’ wiggy duds, that make The Big Lebowski a richly rancid enjoyment. The raucously rattletrap musical selections add a fitting, pungent quality to this delirium. Praise to musical supervisor T-Bone Burnett for the screwy selections in this big laugher. — Duane Byrge, originally published Jan. 20, 1998.
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