America’s most popular participatory sport, bowling is also the only one whose spectators are often in better shape than the athletes. Joel and Ethan Coen, in their tribute to tenpins, recognized that the game is not so much an exercise opportunity as a social event — where beer is an essential accoutrement, like tobacco chaw to a baseball player; bringing a Pomeranian to the alley can risk sundering a friendship; and disputes on such issues as the one-toe-over-the-line rule are resolved with a show of firepower. Jeff Bridges is Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski (a character based on larger-than-life indie film promoter Jeff Dowd), John Goodman and Steve Buscemi are his teammates, and John Turturro plays the fiery, purple-suited competitor Jesus Quintana, who prepares for each competition by applying brisk foreplay to his ball, then licking it the moment before release.
The movie ornaments its plot with a few nonbowling issues, like mistaken identity and “interactive erotic software.” And if swearing were a competitive sport, Lebowski would be the world champ. (A YouTube short compiles all the unprintable four-letter words in two-plus minutes.) But the Coens’ visual rhapsodies focus on the ominous grace of a black ball rolling down a lane toward its seismic demolition of 10 pacifist pins. When the rest of the world has gone to hell — when, as the movie’s sagebrush narrator (Sam Elliott) tells us, “darkness washed over the Dude, darker ‘n a black steer’s tuchus on a moonless prairie night” — there’s just one option left for these hapless musketeers. “F— it, Dude,” Goodman says. “Let’s go bowling.”
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