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We've got just one question: Why, Dude?

The Coen Brothers film 'The Big Lebowski' is off the wall and coarse, yet the 1998 comedy endures as cult object.

October 21, 2005|Gene Seymour | Newsday

Yea, verily, the Dude abides. Danged if we know how or why.

Joel and Ethan Coen, after all, have made many movies just as off the wall (if not more so) than 1998's "The Big Lebowski." Indeed, just about every one of their movies, beginning with the 1984 noir thriller "Blood Simple" through "Miller's Crossing" (1990), "Fargo" (1996)," and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000), is bent, dark and droll enough to attract its motley, even impassioned supporters.

As for "Lebowski" star Jeff Bridges, some people contend that he's the best movie actor of his generation, even if he doesn't have an Oscar. Sometimes, though not often enough, Bridges' movies are just as good as he is. Check out "Starman" (1984), "The Fisher King" (1992) or the unjustly neglected "American Heart" (1992).

Yet somehow, of all the roles Bridges has had, big and small, it's his portrayal of slacker-savant Jeff Lebowski, a.k.a. "The Dude" (or, as he puts it, "His Dudeness or ... Duder, or El Duderino, if you're not into the brevity thing"), that could very well end up being his most iconic role. And "The Big Lebowski" is the one Coen Brothers movie that could endure well beyond its time as a cult object.

Implausible, you say? You're probably among those irritated by "Lebowski's" pastiche of Chandler-esque intrigue, stoner slapstick, glow-in-the-dark red herrings and nonchalant surrealism. For every one of you, there may be two or three others who embrace "The Big Lebowski" for those same reasons. Quite likely, these fans are also serious bowlers. Whether you appreciate the movie or not, you can understand why.

It's in tribute to the devotees that Universal has released a glossy Achievers' Edition of "The Big Lebowski." The digitally remastered DVD is only part of the package. The box also contains a bowling towel and eight photographs taken by Bridges during the movie's shoot. There are more on-set Bridges shots included among the DVD's extras, as well as four coasters, each emblazoned with a line of dialogue. Indeed, it's the dialogue where one begins looking for reasons behind "Lebowski's" staying power. We'd love to share most of the dialogue with you, but two-thirds of it is liberally seasoned with vulgarisms. Even the movie wonders aloud about this. When an old-school cowboy dubbed "The Stranger" (Sam Elliott) turns to the Dude in the middle of a bowling match and asks why he and his friends have to curse so much, the Dude replies blearily, "What the ... are you talking about?" OK, maybe you have to be there. Then again, maybe nothing will help you understand how the Dude should be anyone's idea of a contemporary heroic archetype. Nor will anything satisfactorily explain why the Dude continues to stay close friends with a short-fused Vietnam veteran named Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), whose manner of helping the Dude solve a missing-person case gets him into deeper trouble.

If, in fact, you're looking for a "satisfactory explanation" of anything, "The Big Lebowski" will sorely test your resolve with its surfeit of false leads and nutty digressions. This new edition of "Lebowski" adds to this blithe senselessness in the form of an "exclusive introduction" by somebody pretending to be Mortimer Young, a doddering film preservationist, who, as with "Lebowski's" characters, keeps forgetting the main point of whatever it is he's talking about.

If you're guessing that Young represents a goof on the solemn notion of film preservation, you may be ready to speculate on just what it is about "Lebowski" that accounts for its burgeoning cult.

One can easily grasp at straws here. Asked at one point what he does for recreation, the Dude replies, "Oh, the usual. I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback." Lines like this tempt speculation that "Lebowski" could be a laid-back elegy for a generation of lifestyle rebels that washed up on the shoals of the '70s and has struggled ever since to keep its buzz (if not hope) alive.

Could be. But after you cut through all the false leads and screwball exchanges, the only consistent strand is the movie's insistent querying about what it means to be a man, a hero, a guy, a

Does it mean sticking by your friends no matter what? Does it mean doing your duty to wring out the truth of things? Or is the answer just to play by the rules, especially when you're bowling for a tournament championship? The movie doesn't say for sure. It only draws and gives comfort in knowing that the Dude abides, which is where we came in.

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