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Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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Dude fans will be in their element at Tampa's Lebowski Fest

Of all the offbeat films created by ingenious filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, none has inspired a more loyal cult following than “The Big Lebowski.”

Nearly 16 years after the comedy/mystery debuted and then quickly left theater screens as a box office flop, new fans are discovering and loving it.

Many film critics still consider it a lesser effort than Coen hits such as “Fargo,” “Raising Arizona,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” or “No Country for Old Men.”

“But none of those films has a cult following while our base keeps growing and maybe is getting a little weirder,” jokes Will Russell, co-founder of Lebowski Fest, a two-day traveling celebration of all things Lebowski.

More than 1,000 of those fans, many of them dressed in character, are expected to gather in Tampa Friday and Saturday to celebrate a film about a slacker-bowler “Dude” (Jeff Bridges) who may be the laziest man in the universe.

Fans, known as “Achievers,” will be drinking White Russians during the Lebowski Movie Party at Orpheum in Ybor City, beginning at 8 p.m. Friday.

Music will be provided by the costumed rockers Moonmen From Mars, and by Folkin Up the 80s, a parody folk band. The Lebowski film also will be screened.

The Lebowski Fest Bowling Party, featuring a character costume contest and bowling, is set for 8 p.m. to midnight Saturday at University Lanes in Temple Terrace. Admission is $25 in advance and $30 at the door.

For ticket information visitlebowskifest.com.

This marks the 12th year of Lebowski Fests. Russell, who runs a novelty and T-shirt shop in Louisville, Ky, started it as a joke in 2002 along with fellow “Achiever” Scott Shuffitt.

Only 150 showed up at the first one, but word spread and soon closet Lebowski fans started joining in the fun.

“Today, we average 2,000 to 4,000 for the annual fest in Louisville, and we've had 60 smaller fests in about 30 cities,” says Russell. A Lebowski Fest held in Tampa in 2011 was a success so they have come back.

“The movie is not for everyone,” says Russell. “You have to watch it about three times before you start to appreciate it; and some people never get it.”

Set in the 1980s at the time of the first Gulf War, the film follows the misadventures of an unemployed, pot-smoking, bowling devotee named Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) and his Vietnam veteran bowling buddy Walter (John Goodman).

After the Dude is mistaken for a millionaire, also named Lebowski, he is caught up in a slipshod investigation that pays homage to Raymond Chandler's “The Big Sleep.”

The story also slams almost every kind of crazy in Los Angeles. It also has a rugged cowboy narrator (Sam Elliot), inept nihilist kidnappers, a missing nympho wife (Tara Reid), a nutty feminist (Julianne Moore), the death of a bowling buddy (Steve Buscemi), a lost ransom, a stolen rug, a porn kingpin (Ben Gazzara) and a wild dream sequence that combines bowling images with a Busby Berkeley dance number that includes a cameo by Saddam Hussein (Jerry Havela).

Various cast members, including Bridges, have been special guests at the fests. The Coen brothers, however, have never made any public acknowledgment about the Lebowski celebrations.

Russell once got a cryptic note from the brothers that read: “You have neither our blessing nor our curse.”

Russell finally got to meet Joel Coen last year when Coen was on a road trip and passing through Louisville.

“I was at home in the shower when I got a call from Frances McDormand, Coen's wife,” recalls Russell. “They were in my shop and wanted to buy a poster for the 12th annual Lebowski Fest.”

He offered to give them as many as they wanted but Coen agreed to exchange one for an autograph. He signed 'Will, a dozen years is too long'.”

“I ended up coming down there to talk with them,” Russell says. “He was very cool. Frances said if we make it 25 years, Joel might show up.”

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