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Flop ‘Lebowski' is right down cultists' alley 1/8BC-VID-BIGLEBOWSKI:PH 3/8

The Philadelphia Inquirer

Let us now praise the Dude.

That's right, the dubious hero — or is he merely the foil? — of the Coen brothers' loopy 1998 comedy, “The Big Lebowski.”

As played by Jeff Bridges, the Dude is a spacey stoner, shuffling through life with his bleary eyes at half-mast. His only passion — well, besides smoking joints and slurping White Russians — is the sport of kings: bowling.

Then because he shares a name (Jeffrey Lebowski) with a domineering millionaire, the Dude is drawn into a spiral of intrigue and violence.

With its murky story line and foul language — “The Big Lebowski” is the London Blitz of the f-bomb — the film fizzled during its initial release, grossing less than $18 million.

But in the years since, it has gained cult status, generating more than $40 million in DVD sales. This week, the enduring popularity of “The Big Lebowski” is being marked with a 10th-anniversary edition ($19.98) loaded with bonus features. A limited-edition version ($34.98) is also available, fittingly packaged as a bowling ball.

Ethan Coen, who is credited as the film's cowriter (along with his director brother, Joel), recalls in one of the bonus interviews that the project was an attempt to saddle a hard-boiled Raymond Chandler-esque detective yarn with a protagonist who was supremely ill-equipped for the job.

Whatever its premise, “The Big Lebowski” is one wild magic-carpet ride, spiced with nihilist porn stars, crazy avant-garde artists, and a dream sequence that takes the form of a lavish Busby Berkeley-style production number set to the music of Kenny Rogers during his brief psychedelic period.

The Coen brothers repertory company of John Goodman, John Turturro and Steve Buscemi turns in indelible performances, but the cast includes everyone from Julianne Moore to singer Aimee Mann (in a dramatic role), from Ben Gazzara to Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Bewilderingly, the film's folksy narrator (Sam Elliott) even pops up in a few scenes, to sip sarsaparilla and pass along some needed wisdom to the Dude.

“Sam kept asking us, ‘What am I doing here?'” recalls Joel Coen. “We really didn't have an answer for him.”

“The Big Lebowski” defies categorization. “What genre does it belong to?” asks Joe Loehr, who teaches a cinema course at Penn College in Williamsport, Pa. “It's a comedy; it's a real postmodern film; it's a film about characters.

”The emphasis is as much if not more on the characters than on a definable plot or series of events that work within a traditional structure. And the main character is a quirky antihero, a schlemiel.“

The film hasn't proven to be influential (unless you count this summer's ”Pineapple Express“). But it has developed a sizable following, with devoted fans who refer to themselves as ”achievers“ (after the millionaire Lebowski's charity program for inner-city youths).

”It's an amazing film that somehow gets better with each viewing,“ says Will Russell. ”I've seen it close to 100 times and it still makes me laugh out loud. I can't explain that but it's true. I'm in love with the characters and the dialogue.“

In 2002, Russell, along with his partner Scott Shuffitt, organized the inaugural Lebowski Fest in Louisville, Ky. The concept has blossomed into elaborate two-day theme parties held a couple of times a year in cities from San Francisco to New York.

The first night consists of a raucous screening and live bands. The second night is held in a bowling alley, where attendees knock back White Russians and engage in costume contests.

There are individual categories for the main-character look-alikes. Then there's the coveted best overall outfit, which usually requires some ingenuity.

”People come as lines of dialogue. One guy came as ‘a world of pain,'“ says Russell, referring to the place where Goodman's hotheaded Walter character threatens to send various people in the course of the film.

”He walked around inside this giant globe. Inside there was a hammer hitting him in the head all night,“ says Russell. ”The costume was so big and elaborate, we had to take the doors off the bowling alley to get him in.“

The Dude would approve.


David Hiltbrand:


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