A Cubist Coen Comedy … Men In White Meet Men With Guns … Scorsese’s Cheat Sheet on American Film

Joel Coen’s The Big Lebowski , produced by his brother Ethan Coen, turns out to be a cubist comedy concocted by the irrepressible Coen brothers out of bits and pieces of the old and the new, the black and the blue, the profound and the profane, in a portion of Los Angeles where hyper-reality collides with hyper-gaucherie. Needless to say, but I will say it, anyway, The Big Lebowski will not be everyone’s cup of tea, as it is mine, and I don’t even like tea, particularly when it is spiked with the Coen brand of high spirits. So let me try to explain why I like The Big Lebowski almost as much as Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Fargo (1996), more than Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987), and much more than Barton Fink (1991) and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), the last two being their out-and-out thematic and stylistic catastrophes.

To begin with, the Coen brothers have managed, in their seventh manic movie, to escape the trap into which Jim Jarmusch has fallen since his sparkling debut with Stranger Than Paradise (1984), and that is the trap of the perpetual put-on, with its legacy of diminishing returns. Yet, from its opening credits, The Big Lebowski certainly looks and sounds like a put-on, with its tumbling-tumbleweeds narration by Sam Elliott in a voice that sounds like Death Valley Days on Quaaludes. A sudden flash of wit in the form of an acknowledgment of absent-mindedness on the part of the laid-back narrator alerts us to the presence of script writers who know what they are doing every step of the way, and who will never hesitate to pull the rug out from under us even after it has been peed on by a shaggy-dog-story character we may or may not ever see again in this topsy-turvy narrative.

To go back a bit, as if it were not hard enough to imagine one Jeff Lebowski in Los Angeles, we learn very early on that there are at least two. The first Jeff Lebowski is nicknamed the Dude, and is played with glassy-eyed, grassy-eyed ex-late-60’s-and-early-70’s languor by Jeff Bridges. Two thugs smash into Jeff’s apartment to demand payment for his wife’s debts to their boss, a mysterious Mr. Treehorn. Unfortunately for the unmarried Jeff, the two “collectors” push the wrong Lebowski’s head into the toilet, and when they belatedly discover their error, instead of apologizing they compound their mistake by pissing on Jeff’s rug and verbally abusing him as a loser as they depart. Jeff discovers in the course of his ordeal that the “other” Jeff Lebowski is a Pasadena millionaire with a curvaceous trophy wife fittingly named Bunny (Tara Reid), who has caused all the trouble by spending beyond her meager allowance from her stingy husband.

When the first Jeff Lebowski joins his bowling buddies, John Goodman’s loudmouthed Walter Sobchak and Steve Buscemi’s conversational retard Donny, the movie settles into the groove through which most of the comic and emotional strikes will be scored by this wacky trio. One would think that Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s Kingpin (1996), with its grossness and gruesomeness, had exhausted bowling as a screen subject for all time. The Big Lebowski is even wilder and funnier than its genuinely tasteless predecessor, but it never becomes mawkish and maudlin as Kingpin does in the dramatic crunch. Instead, the Coen brothers demolish the “sport” with the help of an over-the-top John Turturro as Jesus Quintana, former child molester turned bowling virtuoso with a tongue-licking flair for making bowling look like a pornographic spectacle. Yet, explosive as he is in his well-timed appearances, Mr. Turturro never causes the camaraderie-driven vehicle of The Big Lebowski to crash into a wall of silliness. Fargo garnered more than a few easy and condescending laughs with caricatures of the Scandinavian-English intonations of the upper Midwest. Every laugh in The Big Lebowski is thoroughly earned, with witty and inventive variations on the uncensored smartass expressions of 90’s Americans who have heard it all, and then some, without believing most of it.

That is why the familiar story line of a fake kidnapping complete with double-crosses and triple-crosses is only superficially banal. Whodunit and why are not the issues here. What counts and what matters is how resilient the two or three characters we care most about are in the face of the adversities created by their own clumsiness. The Big Lebowski is not a cozy morality tale by which good vanquishes evil. It is rather a hilarious commentary on the way we are today, or at least were during the Gulf War when the action is set. There are echoes in some of the more exotic villains of Mike Myers’ creepy Kraut unisex parodies on his “Sprockets” segment of the old Saturday Night Live and Bette Midler’s derisive designation of once magnetic continental lovers as “Eurotrash” in Big Business (1988). What finally put the movie over for me was its two conked-on-the-head Busby Berkeley fantasies, which displayed a new and more assured command of the medium by the Coen brothers. To go so far out on a limb stylistically, and not fall flat on your face, is a rare feat nowadays.

Julianne Moore as a dilettantish sex goddess doesn’t have nearly enough to do, but she fills the gaps in her part with the same winsomely intelligent sensuality that made her such a knockout in last year’s Boogie Nights . But top honors must go to the inspired multiple-marriage of Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi with the Coen brothers to produce a cubist collage of an old genre with a new frankness. The result is a lot of laughs and a feeling of awe toward the craftsmanship involved. I doubt that there’ll be anything else like it the rest of this year.

Men in White Meet Men With Guns

John Sayles wrote, directed and edited Men With Guns , his 11th film in 20 years, and he remains, now more than ever, on the side of the angels in the endless struggle for social and economic justice in a world of dictators, plutocrats, so-called “free” markets, jungle ethics, bottom-line morality and an allegedly complacent middle class. Mr. Sayles can be described as the American Ken Loach ( Land and Freedom, Riff-Raff ), just as Mr. Loach can be described as the British John Sayles. Both filmmakers have kept the faith without descending to the boring hell of good intentions, where most socially conscious projects go to die at the box office. Their secret is creating compelling characters in surprisingly complex narratives instead of merely preaching to the converted with cardboard representations of good and evil, of right or, rather, left and wrong. One would think that their egalitarian passion would have fallen with the Berlin Wall, but Mr. Sayles and Mr. Loach are still waiting for Lefty at the Finland Station, and the cinema is all the richer for their quixotic persistence.

At a time when foreign-language directors around the world are jostling shamelessly to make their films in English, Mr. Sayles has reversed the process by having his actors speak mostly Spanish, with the most eloquent and articulate English subtitles you are ever likely to encounter in a foreign-language film. Though Men With Guns was shot in Mexico, the setting is an allegorically nameless country in Latin America with an oppressed Indian population in the jungle and on the mountainsides, and an indifferent bourgeoisie in the skyscraping “capital.” Men With Guns could be dismissed as an ego-driven tour de force attesting to Mr. Sayles’ self-taught proficiency in Spanish were it not for the breathtaking metaphysical design of the film, evoking magic realism, Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Stations of the Cross. A hellish slum is named Los Perdidos (the Lost), and the film’s ultimate destination is a tree-covered mountaintop named Cerca del Cielo (Close to the Sky). In between is a quest for what Mr. Sayles considers to be a universal truth crossing national boundaries.

Mr. Sayles tells us in the production notes that the screenplay is derived from stories he has heard from friends, particularly one told by the novelist Francisco Goldman about a Guatemalan doctor who had sent his students to tend to the medical needs of the rural poor, only to have most of these barefoot volunteers murdered by the very government supposedly supporting the program. Mr. Sayles’ Dr. Fuentes (Federico Luppi), an aging, recently widowed physician living and practicing in the capital, decides to visit his students in the various villages they set out to serve. He finds nothing but the signs of massacres, and in the process he discovers something about himself.

Men With Guns is an ennobling experience but not a particularly seductive one. As an aging American with a long laundry list of things to feel guilty about, I felt frustrated by the sheer enormity of evil in the film, particularly when Mr. Sayles took a cheap shot at two American tourists, played for condescending laughs by the impish Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody. Even so, Mr. Sayles ends Men With Guns on a mystically hopeful note that redeems him as a true artist and humanist far above and beyond the mere agitprop propagandist this sort of material usually attracts.

Martin Scorsese’s Cheat Sheet to American Film

A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies , written and directed by Mr. Scorsese and Michael Henry Wilson, produced by Florence Dauman and edited by Thelma Schoonmaker, is a must-see cultural landmark for all lovers and students of the cinema. Mr. Scorsese introduces clips and interviews directors of the films that influenced him the most. The director would have been qualified by the originality of his insights and the depth of his immersion in the subject to have been a first-rate film historian if he had not chosen instead to become a trailblazing film director. I have never always agreed with him, and he has never always agreed with me, but as someone once said, you can only argue with someone with whom you are in fundamental agreement. Mr. Scorsese’s exhilarating journey will be shown at Crown Gotham Cinema, on Third Avenue between 57th and 58th streets, for one week beginning March 6.