The Big Lebowski Review
Much of the joy and attraction of the Coens' The Big Lebowski has always been its keen ability to appeal in different ways to a wide variety of viewers. That the film is also able to do so repeatedly has ensured it a special place among the DVD generation. The comedy hits first and, for some, hardest. Kids and stoners love that aspect. Denizens of internet message boards wear out many of the more quotable lines (which, take note, has long ceased to be clever or even ironic). The Coens' film has an unexpected inertia about it, where it's nearly impossible to get bored while watching. This movie that centers around a protagonist so lazy he's spawned a nontraditional way of life is anything but lethargic. Indeed, Jeff Bridges' sneakily active performance (he's in most every scene) propels the picture forward and balances out the many pop-up supporting players who come and go with just enough screen time to leave you wanting more. Sidekick John Goodman as Walter Sobchak is a strong enough, crazy enough character to complement the passivity of Bridges' Dude.
As great and enjoyable as all of that is, what elevates The Big Lebowski above its easier elements to love and into being a truly great film is the twisty narrative arc built inside a rather intricate mystery that begins with a couple of guys bursting into the Dude's home, sticking his face in the toilet bowl and pissing on the rug that really tied the room together. The Coens crafted a carefully woven Raymond Chandler story but replaced Marlowe with an unemployed burnout who spends his days and nights bowling, drinking white Russians and smoking pot. And they gave him a sidekick with considerably more issues - a Vietnam vet who has a fondness for firearms and an overall demeanor somewhere between distrusting and paranoid. Credit, too, Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, an adaptation of one of Chandler's Marlowe novels that retained the intricate mystery element but altered the private detective to an almost unrecognizable degree. Elliott Gould's Marlowe was, in many ways, closer to Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski than he was his source character as Chandler wrote him.
The Los Angeles setting is a common element of the Marlowe stories and films and this entry in the Coens' repeated tweaking of the crime genre. The city tends to lend itself to narrative sprawl and confusion better than its east coast metropolitan counterpart might. Mistaken identity, as is the case in The Big Lebowski, feels entirely plausible, as does a veritable travelogue through the many social classes that dot the city. The way the Coens introduce a number of seeming asides, things like the inspired, Busby Berkeley-esque musical number, the presence of Sam Elliott's narrator The Stranger, and the initial appearance of John Turturro's Jesus, fits with the perceived laid-back west coast vibe. It's through this almost psychedelic lyricism that the Coens establish their spaced-out protagonist as an ultimate figure of his place and time, something noted with emphasis in Elliott's narration.
And I suppose The Big Lebowski is remarkably fun to watch as well. My earlier point of the film's broad appeal becomes important when trying to pick out the varied elements that come into play. The great films tend to contain a strong level of sheer enjoyment while watching them, and there's a special place, too, for those pictures which entertain so well even after repeated viewings. This cult of The Big Lebowski that has emerged since its modest theatrical release in 1998 is owed to the capability we have as modern viewers to sit down with our favorite movies at our leisure and as often as circumstances allow. It's a neat, relatively new method of becoming familiar with each and every little aspect of a picture. Surely the advent of DVD and the internet have done nothing but help the film's reputation.
The burgeoning mainstream respect afforded the Coen brothers, elevating them beyond simple purveyors of quirk with limited appeal, has similarly aided the Lebowski cause, and probably vice versa too. The entire phenomenon of The Big Lebowski might be the Coens' greatest, and certainly most unexpected, achievement even if it's not their finest film. They've certainly built up a body of work now that welcomes a great deal of scrutiny and appreciation, and so often at the center of their pictures is a fumbled failure of a crime of some sort. The many accomplished variations on what seems to be a fairly narrow theme is a remarkable feat, pulled off with admirable and prolific consistency. The Big Lebowski does nonetheless stand out from the Coens' pack. It's less mean-spirited than a lot of their work. It's also more accessible in its own way, and ripe with all of that quotable dialogue. Yep, time has been good to the Dude and the Dude, for all of his flaws, has been pretty good to all of us.
This release being reviewed is the edition available stateside from Universal, though it seems to mostly match the disc already covered here at the site by John White. There is no region coding. Packaging is perhaps the most enticing aspect (which is probably not a good sign). Cover art is unnecessarily jumbled and pretty much a mess on the whole, but the inside of this Blu-ray book contains some nice graphics and even an interview with Jeff Dowd, the inspiration for Bridges' iconic character. That this somewhat hollow concession to collectors is, again, one of the stronger points of the release doesn't bode well for the rest of it.
Image quality on the dual-layered BD appears at first glance to be an improvement over the many previous incarnations of the film on DVD. It's never looked spectacular on any format, including the HD-DVD version that came out a few years ago. Universal's attempts to fix or improve that situation here have, to the disappointment of many, largely sputtered out. Instead of trying to make things look as natural and filmlike as possible, the apparent use of DNR has resulted in an artificial, waxy appearance. Colors look overly warm and the level of detail is inadequate in this VC-1 codec. It doesn't look very true. It also doesn't look very impressive, at least when one considers the potential of what Blu-ray has to offer.
Audio suffers no similar problems. The English language DTS-HD Master Audio track rocks and rolls through the many musical pieces while also distributing dialogue cleanly across the multiple channels. It's a satisfying and full listen. A French DTS Surround 5.1 dub is also advertised. Optional subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired, Spanish and French.
In addition to the book-style packaging and the included code for a digital copy of the movie, a collection of bonus features can also be found on the disc. There's the U-Control feature that can be used for a picture-in-picture scene companion track while watching the movie. Other U-Control capabilities allow for the viewer to keep up with how many times certain words, like "dude" but also the f-word, are spoken and still another identifies all of the songs as they play during the film. Seems like a perverse concept of added value but maybe some people really do have unlimited amounts of time to count instances of profanity and such.
Moving on, supplements are repeated from the previous, 10th anniversary edition DVD release but some are now in HD. These include the retrospective featurettes "The Dude Abides: The Big Lebowski Ten Years Later" (10:27) and "The Dude's Life" (10:08), the self-explanatory "Flying Carpets and Bowling Pin Dreams: The Dream Sequences of the Dude" (4:20), and a Jeff Bridges Photo Book (17:29) piece that finds the actor's photography taken on set being shared with viewers. Still in standard definition are carryovers "Making of The Big Lebowski" (24:36), a standard promotional piece, "The Lebowski Fest: An Achiever's Story" (13:53), which is a documentary excerpt about the annual Lebowski festival, and the clever Mortimer Young introduction (4:40).
Additional bonus material comes in the form of a "Worthy Adversaries: What's My Line?" trivia game and an interactive map of the filming locations, including updates to how the settings have changed years after the production. There's also a short, more traditional Photo Gallery containing Bridges' pictures.
BD-Live and pocketBLU content should be available too.