What do Coen Brothers movies and California have in common? That there's no there there, Fargo's seven Academy Award nominations notwithstanding. Some people love the Coens' pictures for their phenomenal visual kick, and there's no question that the brothers have a singular shared vision they've realized with astonishing consistency since making their 1984 debut, Blood Simple. But it's time for someone to stand up and say it: There's absolutely nothing going on under the amazing production design, breathtaking camera angles and the snotty, self-referential pastiche of noir conventions that's being passed off as a plot.

'The Dude' (Jeff Bridges) is a sad case, an unemployed layabout who'd be a slacker if he weren't way too old to be hiding behind Gen-X excuses for pissing his life away drinking beer and bowling with buddies Donny (Steve Buscemi) and Walter (John Goodman). Walter is a volatile gun nut and just-about-intolerable blowhard stuck in a tar pit of Vietnam paranoia; he's also a convert to Judaism and a sap in thrall to his ex-wife, neither of which matters except as fodder for not particularly funny jokes about guys who look after their ex-wives' yappy little dogs and can't work on the Sabbath. The Dude's real last name is Lebowski, and that's where the trouble starts: There's another Lebowski (David Huddleston), a fat old deluded rich guy with a hotsy-totsy young wife named Bunny (Tara Reid). A couple of thugs looking for the other Lebowski burst into The Dude's hovel and threaten to do something awful to him if he doesn't pay Bunny's debts. They also urinate on his rug, which makes the Dude so mildly annoyed that he ambles over to the other Lebowski's house to ask about getting his rug replaced. Lebowski blows him off with a lecture about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, then turns around the next day and hires The Dude to look into Bunny's disappearance. The Dude's lackadaisical investigation brings him face to face with icy daughter Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), an artist who controls the family foundation purse strings and loathes Bunny; pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara); a bunch of annoying nihilists (Peter Stormare, Flea, Torsten Voges and Aimee Mann); a private dick (Jon Polito); and sundry other colorful types, none of whom bring him one step closer to the missing Bunny, though he does have an utterly meaningless close encounter with a marmot.

It appears that the impulse from which The Big Lebowski grew is rooted in L.A noir, particularly movie adaptations of novels by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The conceit seems to have been that there's something clever about taking a tale of corruption and moral bankruptcy among the rich and degenerate in the tradition of, say, The Big Sleep, setting it in the present and replacing the cynical detective with a foul-mouthed '60s burnout who calls himself 'The Dude.' Now, movies like The Long Goodbye and Cutter's Way (ironically enough, co-starring Bridges) did exactly that, and also had something to say about Vietnam-era disillusionment, the pervasive erosion of trust in official institutions, moral malaise and the sadly tenuous relationships that give people's lives meaning in the midst of chaos. But since The Big Lebowski doesn't have an idea in its head, it has to fill the empty space with 'witty' conceits, which is presumably why the story is cluttered up with sullen nihilists, pretentious artists, goofy bowlers, sad little schmucks who think they're interpretive dancers, and silly parodies of porno movies and music videos, though it should also be noted that the full-length, bowling-themed video/fantasy for the goofy 'Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)' is probably the movie's highlight: Saddam Hussein handing out bowling shoes, Busby Berkeley-esque chorines with bowling-pin head-dresses and Julianne Moore in a Valkyrie costume complete with bowling-ball bustier-it doesn't mean anything, but it looks pretty fabulous. In fact, the eclectic soundtrack, which was supervised by T-Bone Burnett, is consistently entertaining, which is far more than can be said for the movie itself.

--Maitland McDonagh