The film-making duo Ethan and Joel Coen have returned to the big screen with "The Big Lebowski", their follow-up effort to their well-received 1997 pic "Fargo". Though this quirky new offering shares some elements with "Fargo", such as its focus on characters with marginal mental abilities, their inept efforts and committing crimes, and off-the-wall black humor, it also misses on the other elements that made "Fargo" a better film-- a cohesive narrative and a likable protagonist that the audience could get behind.
The 'sport' of bowling is a perfect metaphor for the faded art-deco suburban wasteland that the characters of TBL inhabit, with its own strange take on fashion and social mores, and where the victories and conflicts of the bowling leagues matter a great deal, no matter how insignificant they are in the grand scheme of things. Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), who prefers to be called 'The Dude', is an unemployed loser living in a grungy bungalow in Los Angeles. When he is not lazing around, getting drunk, or having an acid-flashback, he can be found cruising the bowling lanes with Walter (John Goodman, most recently seen in "Fallen"), his high-strung Vietnam vet buddy, and the always-clueless Donny (Steve Buscemi of "The Wedding Singer"). One night, while returning home from the supermarket, he is attacked by two men looking for money that is owed to them by the wife of the Big Lebowski, a multimillionaire in Pasadena. However, before the two goons realize that they've got the wrong man, they have already beaten The Dude up and urinated on his favorite rug.
In search of compensation for the soiling of his rug, The Dude pays the Big Lebowski (David Huddleston) a visit, and is promptly sent on his way by the indignant philanthropist. On his way out of the opulent mansion, he meets the Big Lebowski's trophy wife, a twenty-something Bunny (Tara Reid). Not long after, The Dude is called back to the Lebowski mansion with a task: to deliver $1 million in ransom money to Bunny's kidnappers. However, the inept Dude manages to screw up this simple task and loses the money, and soon finds himself involved the schemes of the many stakeholders of the Lebowski fortune. Maude (Julianne Moore of "Boogie Nights") is Lebowski's feminist daughter and believes Bunny's kidnapping is a hoax and wants The Dude to recover the money. Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) is the head of a porn-publishing empire that wants to paid the money that Bunny owes him. Finally, there are the three German 'nihilists', former members of the technopop group 'Autobahn', who claim to be the kidnappers and want their ransom.
While the film is highlighted by flights of fancy and some funny sequences, the pacing and tone is inconsistent, making TBL a series of disjoined comedic set pieces, rather than an actual narrative. For example, the opening sequence has a tumbleweed rolling gently through the streets of Los Angeles and ending up at the sea, and there is a strange "Gutterballs" dream sequence that has the Dude in a glitzy bowling dance number with Maude-- both of which do not seem to have a point, other than being an exercise in indulgence by the Coen brothers. This laundry-list of mildly-amusing sidesteps continues right on through the entire film, leaving you with a 'so what?' sentiment as the closing credits roll. The Coens also allow their indulgences free-reign, often at the expense of pacing and story-telling, milking a gag far beyond its 'best before' date, or continuing on a tangent long after the point has been made. Not surprisingly, it's very easy to become impatient sitting through this kind of film.
Furthermore, the main protagonist, played to great effect by Jeff Bridges, is completely unlikable and lacking any development arc. Is it possible to sympathize for the Dude when he does the absolute least to take control of the situation he finds himself in? Is he a changed man after his misadventures with the million dollars? Unfortunately, the answer is 'no' to both these questions. The only positive aspect on the character front of TBL is that there are so many of them, each with their own idiosyncrasies and comic perspectives, that they do a good job of distracting you from the inadequecies of the story.
Though there are some surprising moments and a few original ideas found within the overly-long two hour running time of "The Big Lebowski", this twisted tale of little consequence may be enjoyable to those who like unconventional films. But by the time the lights in the theater come up, those fleeting indulgences will have been quickly forgotten, and all you will be left with is a very empty feeling.