Underlying the seven films made by Joel and Ethan Coen is a paradox: While showing a world ruled by chaos, their filmmaking style epitomizes methodical control. This embracing of opposites extends to the themes of their films and goes a long way toward explaining their off-kilter sensibility.
In the Coens' world, essentially different perspectives -- egghead wit and lowbrow belly laughs, paralyzing angst and straightforward candor -- can not only coexist but somehow make perfect sense together. The Big Lebowski is no exception. With detail-oriented precision, the Coens construct their latest film to tumble along at the shambling pace of its central character, Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), a blissfully content stoner described as "a man in whom casualness runs deep."
In 1991 Los Angeles, as the Gulf War plays itself out on television, the main preoccupation of The Dude and his unlikely best friend, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), a loud-mouthed, know-your-rights gun enthusiast and Vietnam vet, is bowling.
That is, until two none-too-bright henchmen break into The Dude's run-down Venice Beach bungalow, threaten him, demand payment for his wife's debts and then territorially piss on his sole throw rug. They've obviously mistaken The Dude for another Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston), a millionaire philanthropist, whom Walter suggests The Dude visit to demand recompense.
Thus begins an elaborate tale of kidnapping, extortion and rampant double-dealings (common Coen themes since Blood Simple), which includes encounters with an arch, ultrasophisticated feminist artist (Julianne Moore) and a bizarre trio of motorcycle-riding, marmot-hurling, pancake-eating German nihilists (led by Fargo's Peter Stormare).
This is the Coens' most gag-filled, out-and-out funny film since Raising Arizona, but it's also their most scattershot. Composed of a series of sharp, clever and often outrageous scenes (several could stand alone as darkly humorous shorts) that never gel into a cohesive whole, The Big Lebowski feels incomplete and unresolved.
The Coens haven't rolled a gutter ball, but with The Big Lebowski it seems as if they were aiming to knock down a lot of pins without necessarily getting a strike.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.