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Joel and Ethan Coen have done much damage in the name of smartness. They’ve thrown glitter in the eyes of critics who yearned for brains but got only adolescent cleverness; they’ve obfuscated their cruelest impulses by cloaking them in fast, tricky dialogue; their visual panache owes little to lower forms of popular culture; and, therefore, transporting idiosyncrasy has passed for exactitude.

Undoubtedly brilliant, probably not altogether fraudulent, certainly jerks, the Coens always had it in them to make a real movie. The Big Lebowski is that movie. If we had to sit through years of their hollow Big Ideas (Barton Fink) and mean-spirited capers (Fargo) on the way, it was probably worth it to discover irrefutably that what earned the Coens plaudits in highly touted inferior works appears showy and superfluous when they’re solidly, deliriously on top of their game. Lebowski shoehorns in the pettiness, the elaborate star turns, the inherent hilariousness of the damaged soul—and it’s all the worst stuff in this sublimely ridiculous homage to the proud and unruffled spirit of the true loser.

Jeff Bridges plays Jeff Lebowski, a washed-up surfer type mooching his unsanitary but harmless way through the middle years of life in Los Angeles. He likes his drinks sticky (White Russians, very milky) and his pot free, and prefers titles (please call him “the Dude”) to names; otherwise, he goes out to bowl with his pals and stays in to play Creedence tapes. Clearly, this is a character ripe to get mixed up in something far bigger than he can handle.

Bridges is amazingly good drawling, shuffling, and turning on a smile he’s not quite sure still holds its youthful charisma. Contrasted with his friends—tightly wound Vietnam vet Walter (John Goodman) and limp noodle Donny (Steve Buscemi, who should just change his name to Hapless Steve Buscemi)—the Dude is content to face life with a kind of goofy facetiousness insufficient for more serious or more scared men. He doesn’t care if he looks like a fool—he’d better not, because he often looks like a fool—but it’s a wise fool who knows not to let society’s judgments interfere with his enjoyment of bowling, Creedence, Kahlúa, etc.

But he’s pushed too far when two thugs burst in and demand money from him. It’s not the money that worries him—the Dude is a cash-n-carry guy—but the fact that one of the thugs has pissed on his rug. “That rug really pulled the room together,” says Walter, winding the Dude up to take revenge. Goodman’s role is a mistake even the actor can’t fix—no one has ever gotten the psycho veteran right, and it’s tiresome to watch him pull inappropriate guns and hiss about “our boys dying face-down in the mud.” Much of the dialogue is too clever for the bums who speak it, although it flatters the Coens’ smart audience, and bits around the edges, like John Turturro’s gemlike little role as the buggery-obsessed bowling dandy Jesus (pronounced the North American way) Quintana, are entertaining but self-indulgent.

As it turns out, there’s another Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston), a bullying fat cat with Kashmiri throws to spare, who owes money to the abductors who’ve taken his trashy teenage wife (Tara Reid). Perhaps the other Lebowski, the one with nothing to lose, could make the drop? It’s all nice and simple, nothing that needs to involve a Kraftwerklike trio of German nihilists, a porn king out of David Lynch, the millionaire’s artist ex-wife (Julianne Moore doing Miranda Richardson), and a shlubby landlord who’s finally found a “space” for his “dance cycle.” What could be easier, especially with the bowling finals coming up?

The Coens have always had a taste for the convoluted caper gone wrong, but instead of hanging unlikable villains out to dry, they place the skeptical, beatific Dude at the center of the action and let it whirl around him. Somewhere between purity and stupidity, the Dude can’t be touched by everyone else’s concerns—the million dollars, threats of violence—he just wants his rug back, his car fixed, and the regionals trophy on his dresser. He’s roughed up and doped up by the bad guys (there are lots of bad guys of varied provenance), but to him it’s a Busby Berkeley acid dream, the screamingly gorgeous retro bowling alley as ripe for the magic carpet ride in his head as the feminist Valkyrie artist who wants a baby by him.

Everything in the Dude’s life is a cinematic dazzle; The Big Lebowski is about Los Angeles, and it gets exactly right—because of, not in spite of, the hallucinatory exaggeration—how the quality of the dropout’s life is as cushy and unreal as that of the financial bigwig’s. (The Coens aren’t afraid of the city, as they were in Barton Fink.) L.A. coddles its losers, the way movies coddle lucky crumbums; the Dude’s story is introduced by way of cowboy music and a tumbleweed dancing across the desert, up to the top of Mulholland Drive, and finally to the seashore, where the Coens have long agreed the next dream of freedom begins after the coast gives out. A rambling western-serial narrator (Sam Elliott) sets up the Dude’s story as a cherished Hollywood myth, and nothing in the script betrays the fairy-tale buzz of the industry’s, or the place’s, twice-told tales—shocking violence, ready sex, dance cycles, and all.

A little amateur spelunking reveals that the problem with Krippendorf’s Tribe, the movie, is the devolution from whatever went on in Frank Parkin’s book, to the mostly clever script by Charlie Peters, to the dumber-than-it-has-to-be realization of Todd Holland, another class TV act (My So-Called Life, The Larry Sanders Show) farting and belching gamely for the big screen.

The cute premise and family-friendly subtext have more potential than Holland’s crude, broad direction is willing to tease out. James Krippendorf (Richard Dreyfuss) is a middling anthropology professor recovering from a tailspin spurred by the death of his beloved and reputedly brilliant wife. He has squandered a sizable grant by treating it like personal income and spending it on his sagging great house and three kids. Sassy Shelly (Natasha Lyonne) has resentfully taken over the housewifely duties, while younger brother Mickey (Gregory Smith) plays the affable geek genius; little Edmund (Carl Michael Lindner) hasn’t spoken a word to his father since the tragedy.

Called upon to deliver on the promise extracted by the grant—the discovery of a previously unknown New Guinea tribe—Krippendorf panics and immediately models the fictitious islanders after the tribe he knows best—the single-father household. Buffeted by the petty jealousies and relentless pressures of academia and terrified into action by his own guilt, the professor spins audacious refinements for his already unbelievable fiction.

Krippendorf invents ever more rococo fillips for the social system of the Shelmikedmu (he has named the tribe after his kids), indulging crowd-pleasing fantasies (the tribe’s penchant for murdering its village lawyers) and cartoon projections of Western rituals (the “fermented banana sap” with which a young suitor plies a potential mate). At the same time, he turns these tribal fictions into truth in his own life, in which his kids participate in his foolish games and pleasing the money-dispensing elders is simply a matter of not cracking a smile when the joke’s on them.

The academic community—and eventually the rest of the country, titillated by the story’s novelty and the prurient delights of the primitive that popular culture casts—is thrilled by his discovery. But Krippendorf’s real discovery is that crusty movie saw about finding what you’re looking for in your own back yard, which is exactly where he stages faux circumcision rites, mating rituals, and pig-chasing events for the cameras of the high-paying all-anthropology cable network. And the tribe is, of course, his own family, each member of which will surely be moved to break through his or her anti-Dad defense before the farce is over and everyone gets his grant money, plus hugs all around.

Not an earth-shattering subtext, but it actually goes underexploited by the raw comedy all around. Only the core characters aren’t ill-used by the script. Jenna Elfman is cute as cake as the ambitious, blithely grasping Veronica Micelli, who attaches herself remoralike to Krippendorf’s potential blockbuster of a project as much out of a dizzying love for the science of anthropology as for her natural greed. And the kids are witty and almost real, especially the bespectacled Mickey, whose imagination is fully engaged by the chance to incorporate every lurid and exotic anthropological rumor into the play ceremonies of Dad’s project, unbeholden as it is to fact. It is Mickey’s delighted resourcefulness, as much as the ladder-clawing love of a good woman, that helps resurrect Krippendorf’s long-dormant taste for a fully engaged work life.

But Lily Tomlin is thuddingly extravagant as Krippendorf’s rival, a showy anthro-queen who sports a pet monkey and a fading but still satisfying National Geographic cover. An unnecessary subplot casts Tom Poston and Elaine Stritch as Krippendorf’s rich, meddling in-laws, bent on putting the kids in an uptight private school; Stephen Root has little more to do than glad-hand; and David Ogden Stiers is underused in a simple role that he makes delicious. Even with such missteps, Krippendorf’s Tribe should succeed as a comedy. But its television coarseness—scrambly overacting, jerky timing, and sitcom editing—makes everything clever about the script look accidental and the leads’ charming performances look heroic. CP