Reviews of five John Goodman films on home video. The kingpin of sunny, guileless comedy on 'Roseanne' taps his rage in the Coen brothers' latest, bringing casual terror and wit to the bowling epic 'The Big Lebowski'

By Mike D'Angelo
Updated August 14, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Reviews of five John Goodman films on home video

With the possible exception of Gene Kelly in his heyday, no actor has ever managed to appear quite so ostentatiously happy as John Goodman smiling with all of his might. His corpulent mug crumples into itself, virtually imploding with delight. Thanks to this expressive face and the sheer force of his enthusiasm, Goodman has made the most of his bliss, forging a career from variations on the jolly fat man — making his strongest impression, of course, as Roseanne‘s longtime foil, Dan Conner, the most relentlessly affable husband and father since Ozzie was laid to rest beside Harriet in the coaxial graveyard.

But in recent years, in addition to the King Ralphs and Fred Flintstones and cheerful sidekicks ad infinitum, Goodman fans have been given ever-more-frequent glimpses of something far darker: a controlled, sometimes frightening malevolence, a willful taste for destruction that in The Big Lebowski finds its perfect comic expression.

The two extremes have been there from the start. In David Byrne’s self-consciously wacky True Stories, Goodman played Louis Fyne, a love-starved, marriage-hungry bachelor with a ”consistent panda bear shape.” Then 33, the actor gave what must rank as one of the most thoroughly lovable performances in the history of American film, effortlessly stealing Byrne’s anecdotal film from a bevy of more colorful costars (e.g., Swoosie Kurtz as a woman who never leaves her bed). The following year, in his first collaboration with Joel and Ethan Coen, he fused joy and fear as the violent, avuncular career criminal Gale Snopes in Raising Arizona. Goodman gives him all the warmth of an abandoned trailer park until Gale falls for the toddler he’s holding for ransom. His exit through the front door of a hayseed bank he’s just robbed — a shotgun in one hand, little Nathan Jr.’s car seat in the other — handily encapsulates the two poles of Goodman’s persona.

Other recent performances have extended his sinister side. As the title character of the TV-movie biopic Kingfish: A Story of Huey P. Long he melds the down-home boy with a ruthless ambition unleavened by comedy; in The Borrowers, a pleasant, new-to-tape kid flick based on Mary Norton’s novels, he plays an outright cartoonish villain, complete with slicked hair, pencil mustache, and the mellifluously hateful name of Ocious P. Potter. Given such an unredeemable character, Goodman cuts loose with a glee that leaves the movie’s nominal heroes practically shrinking off the screen.

Yet it’s the Coens who have nurtured Goodman’s anger, placing his massive frame in imposing roles in three of their seven films. (He does a brief and almost unrecognizable voice-over in The Hudsucker Proxy.) Their second film together, 1991’s Barton Fink (1991, Fox, R, $19.98), forever changed the way we look at the actor’s regular Joes. As insurance salesman Charlie Meadows, Goodman comes across as the kind of guy you’d actually want to sit with on a long bus trip. But by film’s end, Charlie has metamorphosed into Karl ”Madman” Mundt, a sweating lunatic brandishing a shotgun, bellowing, ”I’ll show you the life of the mind!” as hotel corridors burst into flames around him. The big lug would never look the same again.

For the Coens’ latest, The Big Lebowski, Goodman is back in sidekick mode, but with a difference. His Walter Sobchak may technically be secondary to Jeff Bridges as the Dude, but Walter is the picture’s irresistible force to the Dude’s eminently movable object. A super-articulate Vietnam vet whose traumas are so ever present he’s in a state beyond stress, Walter doesn’t suffer fools or the breaking of rules, be they bowling rules or the laws of kashruth. He’s more likely to pull a weapon, enforcing his own brand of vigilante justice.

Just such an impulse has him barging in on the Dude’s plans, substituting his dirty laundry for the $1 million ransom the Dude is supposed to deliver. But who’s gonna stop Walter? The perfect counterpart to Bridges’ hilariously passive, drug-addled amateur sleuth (imagine Tommy Chong as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep), Goodman has never been more entertaining than when there’s implied violence in his every word and breath. (A scene in which he pulverizes a sports car with a crowbar, while reciting an unprintable mantra, is a minor classic.) And though the pace slackens in Lebowski‘s second half, I’d still place it ahead of the Coens’ Goodmanless Fargo. More significantly, though, there’s no denying that John Goodman’s scowl is every bit as potent as his smile. True Stories: B+; Arizona: A-; Kingfish: C; Borrowers: C+; Barton Fink: A; Lebowski: B

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