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Coen brothers' formula stays true in 'The Big Lebowski'

The Coen brothers' latest film, "The Big Lebowski," features John Turturro as a pedophile bowler named Jesus, and bless them for it. Following up on the success of their Oscar-winning Fargo, one might expect them to make a bloated, boring mess covering pretty much the same ground they mined in the past – a route selected by writer/ director/ really bad actor Quentin Tarantino with his "Pulp Fiction" follow-up Jackie Brown (still can't believe I paid for that experience) – though in all fairness I should note it was better than his truly horrid contribution to "Four Rooms." Success does that to people. On the one hand it makes them fearful to try new things, and on the other hand it convinces them that everything they do is brilliant. That's a dangerous combination, as Tarantino's recent work attests.

I must admit I was concerned about the Coens, particularly after I heard that "The Big Lebowski" was about a "ransom gone wrong." "Fargo" was about a kidnapping gone wrong. Not a huge departure. But the moment I saw John Turturro strut up to the bowling lane, I knew everything was going to be just fine.


That said, "The Big Lebowski" is, at best, the Coens' second worst film out of their seven ("Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona," "Miller's Crossing," "Barton Fink," their low point "The Hudsucker Proxy," "Fargo," and now "The Big Lebowski"). If someone argued that it was their absolute worst, they'd have a solid case. However . . . well, let me quote an old review of an album by the punk band The Clash: "Sandinistia is The Clash's worst album. And it's still really, really good." So it is with the Coens. Even off their game, they're formidable. And one of the two (Ethan '79) is a Princeton grad, so they deserve our support.

Plus, more importantly, "The Big Lebowski" is their funniest movie since "Raising Arizona," which is the funniest movie ever made (if you doubt this claim, watch the scene in which Glenn tries to tell a Polish joke). "The Big Lebowski" is so unevenly written that the sloppiness seems almost intentional, but the acting is positively sensational. Brilliant moments abound. Like when John Goodman, playing a paranoid Jewish Vietnam vet, attempts to prove that a man in a wheelchair is faking it. Or when Jeff Bridges, playing the perpetually stoned and scuzzy Jeff Lebowski, happens to stand downwind while a recently deceased friend's ashes are scattered in the breeze. Or when Julianne Moore, playing an artist with a fondness for sex on intellectual grounds, watches a porn film and then solemnly intones, "The plot is ludicrous." Or when John Turturro polishes his bowling ball in an oddly sexual fashion. I doubt any of these actors will receive Oscar nominations next year, but that will only be because none of them are 87 years old like a certain undeserving Oscar nominee, not that I am naming names.

I should note that a lot of people will dislike this movie. The noted film critic and fat ass Roger Ebert blasted the Coens' Raising Arizona because "real people don't talk like that" (wonder what he thinks of Shakespeare), and they're even guiltier of that offense in this film. Plus a few of the scenes are poorly written enough that I found myself GLAD that real people don't talk like that, which is a rarity among the Coens' generally flawlessly scripted films.

That said, it doesn't change the fact that this movie features a scene in which John Goodman shrieks, "What kind of a nihilist are you?" The Coen brothers are excessively self-indulgent this time around (check out those dream sequences), but it can be argued that Michael Jordan takes too many shots. So what? You hope the great ones will have the good sense to discipline themselves, but when they don't, allowances are made.

Go see "The Big Lebowski," because in a world of big special effects and innumerable cliches, it's nice to know there's still room for a pedophile bowler named Jesus.