The Coen brothers are unique in that they've never really had a dud; whatever they set out to do, they manage to do. Fargo is their most enduring movie, and this year's Inside Llweyn Davis might be their most personal. But their 1998 California romp The Big Lebowski is probably the most fun.
This reluctant-gumshoe noir doesn't so much tell a story as it does roll down a hill studded with plot points, but the mystery's just meaningless background noise for its characters. And rightly so, since some of the Coens' best linger in the bowling alleys of this caper, tossing around dialogue both compulsively quotable and over-the-line. Jeff Bridges casually creates an icon as the determinedly chill Dude; John Goodman's Walter proves again why he's a Coen brothers' staple, and Steve Buscemi brings his impeccable comic timing to Donny. The movie's other characters are mere vessels for one-liners, but with an anchoring trio this perfectly suited, you don't much mind.
Stylistically, as well, it's unabashedly exuberant, from languorous long shots as frames for comic tension to its surreal Busby Berkeley centerpiece. And despite repeatedly establishing locations—nighttime Los Angeles, the kingdom of the bowling alley, an ill-advised visit to Malibu—the Coens develop a dream geography that glosses over the plot impossibilities and externalizes the Dude's perceptions on the world.
So much of a Coen brothers film illuminates the human condition when pitted against forces beyond control, with protagonists suited to their struggles in varying degrees. In the hands of the Dude, there's no obstacle that can't be overcome if you just botch it hard enough. That The Big Lebowski remains such an optimistic film, despite the Nihilists in front of and behind the camera, is perhaps its greatest mystery. For this antihero, it's just good knowin' he's out there.
Fri., Jan. 31, midnight. $10. Ritz at the Bourse, 400 Ranstead St. 215.440.1181. landmarktheatres.com