The Coen brothers are not twins but they might as well be. Like many close siblings, writer-director Joel and writer-producer Ethan share a private cinematic language. The films they make together are self-contained, almost hermetic alternative universes, worlds that amuse the brothers no end but are not guaranteed to connect with anyone else.
The Coens' career has alternated between pictures where the connection to audiences was made with exhilarating success (the recent "Fargo") and others (the completely baffling "The Hudsucker Proxy") where all circuits were down. Their latest, "The Big Lebowski," turns out to be a little of both.
Though the film has so much plot that the Coens consider "Lebowski" a '90s version of a Raymond Chandler detective novel, the story line is in truth disjointed, incoherent and even irritating. What you remember and enjoy about this film (if you remember and enjoy it at all) is not the forest but individual trees, engaging riffs as only the Coens can concoct them that amuse and entertain though they connect to nothing else in the film, not even one another.
Set during the Gulf War and framed by the words of a narrator/guardian angel with a thick cowboy accent (Sam Elliott), the Coens' film involves two different Jeffrey Lebowskis. Only one of them, however, is "the laziest man in Los Angeles County," a genial deadbeat who insists on being known simply as "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges).
Introduced in a supermarket sampling milk from the carton, the Dude is a proto-slacker, terminally befuddled by the constant smoking of weed and the drinking of White Russians. "Huh?" is his most common expression, "Take it easy" his advice on every subject, and bowling with buddies Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi) his sole reason for making it out of bed in the morning.
Though the Dude is not in the business of seeking out excitement, it comes unbidden one night to his Venice shack in the form of a pair of sadistic thugs, one of whom urinates on the Dude's cherished rug to make the point that he better make good on his wife's mounting debts.
As even the thugs soon realize, they've got the wrong Lebowski. The other, bigger Lebowski (David Huddleston) is a millionaire who lives across town in Pasadena with his sex-obsessed trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) and plaques commemorating earnest philanthropies like the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers.
Though this Lebowski throws the Dude out when he shows up asking for compensation for his rug, the millionaire soon calls back. It seems Bunny has been kidnapped and the services of the Dude are requested to act as intermediary. A well-compensated intermediary.
From this (relatively) straightforward beginning, "The Big Lebowski" soon spins rapidly and completely out of control. Though the Coens, working as usual with master cinematographer Roger Deakins, are impressive visual stylists and clever writers, this film feels completely haphazard, thrown together without much concern for organizing intelligence.
That's because, despite concocting an incomprehensible plot that comes to include pornographers, anarchists and an avant-garde painter (Julianne Moore), the Coens don't seem to be very interested in it. What they care about are the private jokes and odd bits happening at the extremes of their picture, things like a peripatetic tumbleweed, a Busby Berkeley-inspired dream sequence and a marmot used to terrorize the unwary. Without coherence, there is anarchy, and when the wealthy Lebowski barks to the Dude, "What in God's holy name are you blathering about?," he's speaking for the audience as well as himself.
Yet as tempting as it is to completely dismiss "The Big Lebowski," it's hard to do because the Coens are able to create wickedly funny eccentrics and possess the ability to energize certain actors to inhabit them completely. The adept Philip Seymour Hoffman is properly unctuous as an executive assistant, and John Turturro has the time of his life as Jesus Quintana, a flamboyant bowler who's also a registered sex offender. These are tiny roles but they're more than memorable.
Strongest of the major players is Goodman as Walter Sobchak, a classic self-absorbed Coen brothers lunatic, as oblivious to the rest of the world as it is to him. A short-tempered, overwrought Vietnam vet forever warning everyone, "You're entering a world of pain," Goodman's Walter always surprises us with the extent of his manias, and his insistence that he is "shomre Shabbes," a Sabbath-observing Jew, turns into a classic sequence.
Unfortunately it's the nature of this film that all of "Lebowski's" good things exist in a vacuum. Unconcerned about creating a coherent center, the Coens haven't cared that the Dude is not only too laid-back to pay his rent, he's also too laid-back to function as a protagonist. Comparing Bridges' narcoleptic character to the more focused and humane heroine Frances McDormand played in "Fargo" goes a long way toward accounting for the relative success levels of the two films.
Whatever else you say about the Coens, they do have a knack for anticipating criticism. "It was a pretty good story, don't you think?" Elliott's folksy narrator says at the close. "It made me laugh. [Pause] Parts of it anyway." Partner, you got that one right.
* MPAA rating: R, for pervasive strong language, drug content, sexuality and brief violence. Times guidelines: more odd than disturbing.
'The Big Lebowski'
Jeff Bridges: The Dude
John Goodman: Walter Sobchak
Julianne Moore: Maude Lebowski
Steve Buscemi: Donny
David Huddleston: The Big Lebowski
Philip Seymour Hoffman: Brandt
Tara Reid: Bunny Lebowski
A Working Title Films production, released by Gramercy Pictures. Director Joel Coen. Producer Ethan Coen. Executive producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner. Screenplay Joel & Ethan Coen. Cinematographer Roger Deakins. Editors Roderick Jaynes, Tricia Cooke. Costumes Mary Zophres. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Rick Heinrichs. Art director John Dexter. Set decorator Chris Spellman. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.