The Coen Brothers have consistently released a string of quirky, offbeat, but highly entertaining films with only one minor stumble (Miller’s Crossing). While The Big Lebowski delivers more of their typical oddball characters and situations, it is an unfortunate disappointment. This time, they have all the parts together, but someone forgot the glue.
Jeff Bridges stars as “The Dude” Jeff Lebowski, but not The Big Lebowski. That appellation belongs to a millionaire (David Huddleston) who happens to have the same name as The Dude, but much bigger enemies. Or at least his trophy wife, Bunny (Tara Reid), does. But it doesn’t matter much to The Dude when those enemies, in a mix-up, come knocking on his door.
The Dude, you see, is a relic from the 60s. His hippie lifestyle has devolved over time into an endless haze of smoking marijuana, drinking White Russians, and bowling. His bowling partners don’t have much of a life either. There’s Walter (John Goodman), an obsessed Vietnam vet with a hair trigger, and an irrational devotion to his ex-wife. And then there’s the wimpish Donny (Steve Buscemi), who’s the team’s best bowler, but gets no recognition and little respect from his teammates.
So, as the Dude gets entangled in the plot, through no fault of his own, he meets a plethora of unusual characters. Julianne Moore appears as an uber-feministic artist. Peter Stormare is a German nihilist with an attack ferret. Coen regular John Turturro has a cameo as Jesus, a bowler with strange predilections. There’s even a cowboy, Sam Elliott, who narrates the tale.
However, the sensation this time around is like a bunch of jigsaw pieces from different puzzles hammered together. The Coen’s better work, such as Raising Arizona or Barton Fink, each had the same menagerie of bizarre characters, but in those films there was some sort of common thread that linked them all together. They all seemed to belong in the same world…something that’s not true of The Big Lebowski.
Taken on an individual basis, the characters are funny. Jeff Bridges does another superb turn in the film’s central role, enhancing his character with a seemingly effortless comic touch. Goodman’s outbursts are amusing, but they seem staged. Many of the other characters are overshadowed by their own quirks.
Visually, the film is a treat, particularly in the film’s elaborately staged dream sequences. They serve no narrative purpose in the film (like many other things), but they’re a hoot to watch.
The central problem with the film seems to be on the script level. There are plenty of good concepts and interesting characters, but the end result seems more like a scrapbook than a screenplay.
The Big Lebowski is a failure. But, on the bright side, it’s a Coen Brothers failure, so, even if the film has little point and even less cohesion, you’ve got quirky characters and strange situations to divert you.