Big Lebowski, The

Published: Friday, May 3 2002 9:06 a.m. MDT

As a filmmaker, there's a big drawback to creating a great movie like "Fargo": Trying to top yourself with the follow-up is nearly impossible.

So considering that it already has one strike against it, a case could be made that "The Big Lebowski" was due to disappoint. But this uneven screwball comedy — a disjointed and half-hearted attempt by the Coen brothers to return to the "Raising Arizona" style — is bound to underwhelm even their most fervent admirers.

Admittedly, there are some very inspired bits of lunacy, such as some bizarre drug-addled fantasies stemming from the main character's unconscious (which includes a bizarre Teutonic Busby Berkeley-esque song-and-dance number). However, there are just as many unfunny throwaway gags — many of which stem from the appearance of throwaway character who exist only for the sake of a punchline.

And like "Fargo," there's an overabundance of swear words and crass bits. Even the film's own narrator chides one character, asking "Do you have to use so many cuss words?" If only the Coens had taken their own words to heart.

One big bright spot is star Jeff Bridges, who plays Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski, an unambitious (er, stoned) bowling fanatic who could be Sean Penn's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" character all grown up.

Mistaken for a millionaire with the same name but not nickname (David Huddleston), "The Dude" quickly becomes embroiled in a kidnapping caper when "The Big Lebowski" asks him to deliver the ransom money for his missing wife (Tara Reid).

But rather than making the drop-off, "The Dude" is persuaded by his crazed Vietnam vet buddy Walter (John Goodman) to keep the loot.

Things go downhill quickly from there, with the appearances of Lebowski's pretentious artist daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore), three German extortionists (Peter Stormare, Torsten Voges and Flea, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and a smut peddler (Ben Gazzara), all with stakes in the case.

Unfortunately, they're all characters in search of a consistent storyline. In spite of the lowbrow antics, the plot and ultimate payoff here make even the Coen brothers' surrealist comedy "Barton Fink" look coherent.

But Bridges does have his moments, as does Goodman as his looney sidekick. And Joel Coen's direction is quite stylish, even if the pacing is far too sluggish.

"The Big Lebowski" is rated R for considerable use of profanities, vulgar jokes and gags, violent fistfights and gunplay, drug use, female nudity, brief torture and a couple of racial epithets.

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