'The Big Lebowski' at 20: Newsweek's Review of the Coen Brothers' Stoner Classic

The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers' stoner classic, was released 20 years ago, on March 6, 1998. Lebowski has become a ubiquitous cult film, quoted in college dorms around the world, but at the time of its release longtime Newsweek film critic Jack Kroll was not impressed. Here's his original review from 1998.

The Coen Brothers have always walked a fine line between cleverness and catastrophe. Joel studied film at NYU, Ethan philosophy at Princeton: they're the two-headed monster of postmodern film. Blood Simple teetered toward the cleverness side; The Hudsucker Proxy pratfalled into catastrophe; Fargo was their best balancing act. As for their new one, move over, Hudsucker, here comes The Big Lebowski.

In this film, the Coens are afflicted by a new syndrome: Multiple Parodosis. Frothing from two mouths, they parody film noir, 1940s musicals, flower-child flicks, megaviolent thrillers, sports allegories, ravaged-war-veteran movies, existentialist Westerns... but this is a short review. The Doublemint Coens give us double Lebowskis: Jeff, a.k.a. the Dude (Jeff Bridges), a zonked-out Californian with beach sand in his gears, and Jeff, a.k.a the Big (David Huddleston), a mysterious wheelchair-bound millionaire. When a trio of "nihilist" thugs mistakes the penniless Dude for the loaded Big, breaking in and urinating nihilistically on his rug, a hornet's nest of old movie themes explodes.

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The ingredients in this overboiled cinematic stew include the Dude's Vietnam-vet bowling buddy (John Goodman), the Big's performance-artist wife (Julianne Moore) and a cowboy-philosopher (Sam Elliott), whose tumbleweed tones provide the insufferably unfunny voice-over narration. The takeoff-mad Coens even lay their parodic mitts on Busby Berkeley musicals. The genius of Berkeley included its own parody. Didn't they teach that at Princeton?

This review was originally published in the March 16, 1998, issue of Newsweek, with the headline "All-Purpose Parody."