Mistaken Dude Identity in 'Lebowski'

If you have a taste for the bizarre, get ready to have a ball

His friends call him The Dude, but his real name is Lebowski, and that's all the thugs care about when they barge into his home and rough him up over a debt.

He's only the little Lebowski, though, not the rich Lebowski the thugs really wanted to scare. Feeling wronged, the little Lebowski makes his way to the big Lebowski's luxurious office to demand compensation for this case of mistaken identity.

He doesn't get what he came for, but he does get an unexpected job offer: Deliver a ransom to the kidnappers who have the big Lebowski's daughter, and walk away with a nice reward.

This sounds like a good deal until his bowling-league buddy puts a larcenous spin on it. Since the kidnapping is probably a fake - cooked up by the big Lebowski's family to skim some of his hoarded cash - why don't the little Lebowski and his pals keep the ransom for themselves?

That's only the beginning of "The Big Lebowski," the latest comedy-thriller from Joel and Ethan Coen, who specialize in outlandish story twists along with outrageous bursts of sex, violence, and other scruffy material.

Their last outing, "Fargo," delighted moviegoers with its weirded-out characters and unpredictable events, but displeased others with abrupt gross-outs that punctuated its plot. While the new picture is a little more restrained, its story is more complicated and sprawling, and its heroes - a dope-smoking relic of the '60s and a gun-toting Vietnam vet - are hardly role models you'd invite home for dinner. Viewers with a taste for bizarre, even surreal, humor will have a ball. Others should avoid it as adroitly as The Dude dodges his growing list of foes.

Jeff Bridges and John Goodman head the excellent cast, supported by top-notch talents: Steve Buscemi and John Turturro as dimwitted bowlers; Julianne Moore and David Thewlis as eccentrics; and David Huddleston as the big Lebowski himself.

* Rated R. Contains graphic sex, foul language, and exaggerated violence.

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