The Coen brothers' eighth feature opens with a lone tumbleweed trundling over desolate scrubland, and then up and over into the smoggy sprawl of Los Angeles. ""Sometimes there's a man for his time 'n' place. He fits right in there..."" Cut to late-night supermarket, where an ageing, instantly likable shambles-in-sandals carefully examines the milk cartons for coldness and expiry date, sniffs one, and finally, with a milky moustache, writes out a cheque for 69 cents, Ralph's Shopper's Club card to one side.
This is Jeff `The Dude' Lebowski, and he's the rarest of species: a Coen Brothers character with a soul, symbolic of everything that makes this their finest feature so far, by far. Not only have the pair finally become comfortable with writing real people (even Fargo's Margie felt stylised), but they've also put aside all that know-all studiousness and self-conscious period vernacular, and found how to fuse film literacy with accessibility.
Bridges clicks into character even in the mighty presence of Goodman, Turturro and Buscemi, and carries the movie with just the right blend of woozy elegance. (It's a Travolta-esque career resuscitation, since, lest we forget, Bridges was last seen in The Mirror Has Two Faces.) The Dude's existence in his cluttered Venice bungalow is peaceful, if a little musty: he humours his jittery performance-artist landlord, takes spliffed-up, candle-lit baths and listens to old bowling league play-offs on his Walkman.
At the alley, he competes and natters with buddies Walter (Goodman), a lightly loopy security-store owner and 'nam vet, and Donny (Buscemi), a timid ex-surfer. They discuss his attackers, why they've kidnapped Mrs Lebowski and how he should make the ransom drop.
Appalled at the rug-micturation incident (""Really tied the room together, huh?""), Walter galvanises the Dude into an unholy union of Humphrey Bogart and Homer Simpson. Happily, the Coens resist the urge for his jarring reconstruct-ion into Unlikely Sleuth, suddenly and amazingly unearthing contrived deductive powers from his spliff-foggy brain. Instead, he potters bovinely around the blunt edges of his conundrum, guzzling White Russians, barely scratching the surface.
But the Dude is merely the focus for a movie shot through with pacy, eyes-glued-to-screen compulsion, technical glitter, and - another first for the Coens - - an uninhibited drive towards good, dirty fun. There's a drug-induced, porno-themed dance number which owes more to Vic `n' Bob than Busby Berkley, and the finest rodent-menacing scene in film history (""Tomorrow, we come back and we cut off your Johnson"").
Julianne Moore is polished and prurient as uppity artist Maude, but best of all is John Turturro's deeply astonishing mini-role as strutting sleaze-ball Jesus Quintana, a rival bowler in a tight polyester all-in-one with racing stripe and `Jesus' breast tag (""Are you ready to be fucked, man?""). Think Tony Ferrino, only funny.
Enough. The colder you go into this joyously unpredictable film, the better. This is the sight and sound of the Coens letting their hair down, and you really shouldn't miss the party.
Magnificent. A multiplex-friendly critics' movie in the stripped-down Blood Simple/Fargo style, but with a more restrained hint of Raising Arizona slapstick. A crime-sex-drugs-kidnap-bowling-nihilism mystery of the highest order.