Ahh, The Big Lebowski. Where to start?
It'd be easy to call this 1998 film one of the most offbeat and re-watchable comedies ever made. It'd be even easier to fill this review with a handful of the film's terrific quotes, since they're about as easy to find as a needle in...well, a stack of needles. Easier still would be to praise the detailed efforts of the Coen Brothers (as well as the cast and crew), who worked together to create some of the most eccentric and memorable characters and scenarios you'll ever see. Even so, I'll probably end up doing just that before we get to the meat of this DVD review, except for the handful of quotes. You know those by heart already.
It goes without saying that some of the best work in any film genre---or any medium, for that matter---is created as a result of being trapped in a corner. This is best described as the frustrating, claustrophobic space that usually follows the creator's "best work": you know, that universally praised breakout film, album, or piece of art that places him or her firmly "on the map". Ethan and Joel Coen were certainly no strangers to great films even before the classic Fargo hit theaters in 1996, having already produced such memorable efforts as Raising Arizona (1987), Miller's Crossing (1990) and Barton Fink (1991). Still, it was Fargo that remains---and may ultimately remain---their "best work", or at least the film that most people associate them with. I don't use those quotation marks out of sarcasm or disrespect, either---especially since Fargo is also one of my absolute favorite films of all time.
Yet comparing The Big Lebowski to Fargo is like comparing apples to oranges---or, at the very least, Red Delicious apples to Granny Smith. Both are best taken in at a leisurely pace, both combine sharp dialogue with black comedy and both are extremely well crafted from start to finish. Even so, one's about a failed insurance plan, a pregnant police officer and the icy, intimidating landscape of Minnesota...and, well, the other's about bowling and mistaken identity. Either way, it's true that The Big Lebowski holds much more (and in some ways, less) than what's on the surface, especially since it shares the same "failed scam and resulting chaos" that's found in Fargo...or, to be honest, pretty much any other Coen Brothers film.
Ultimately, though, The Big Lebowski is a shining example of what separates great movies from all the ordinary ones; after all, it's not what the story is about, but how the story is told. From start to finish, it's the perfect follow-up to a universally praised film: The Big Lebowski is the ultimate "film about nothing", a celebration of how boring and strange life can be for a man who barely knows what he's stuck in the middle of. That man, of course, is Jeff Lebowski (AKA "The Dude"), and he's looking to replace a rug that someone urinated on after an unfortunate case of mistaken identity. The Dude loves bowling, marijuana, White Russians and listening to Creedence. He hangs out at the bowling alley with Walter and Donny; one's a Vietnam veteran and security guard with a hot temper, while the other's like a child who wanders into the middle of a movie and wants to know what's going on. Before the credits finally roll, you'll have met a group of German nihilists, a wandering stranger, Jesus, a private investigator...and, of course, the other Jeff Lebowski. Just to name a few.
Still, The Big Lebowski is a film that doesn't try to get by on characters alone. It's more than just a bunch of strange folks spouting great dialogue, though that may very well be its most easily recognized strength. This is a film that really never gets old; it stands up to virtually unlimited viewings and often grows even funnier with each one. The humor is piled on thick, the performances are strong all around, and the music (composed by Carter Burwell and archived by T-Bone Burnett) fits in exceedingly well with each scene. It's just about as perfect as comedy can get.
The Big Lebowski has amassed a huge following in the past seven years. Just ask anyone who's attended one of many nationwide "Lebowski Fests", where participants enjoy bowling, White Russians and Creedence (and probably marijuana, but that's not my business)---and if you'd like to attend one in the future, just follow the handy link below. In any case, such independently-run events offer proof that fans of The Big Lebowski are as rabid as followers of everything from Monty Python to Star Trek...which is why they might be a little disappointed with this new DVD release.
It's been a few years since The Big Lebowski first reached us on DVD, and it wasn't bad for its time. Though the disc's highly compressed content caused the visual presentation to suffer, the relative lack of bonus features could be overlooked because...well, we could finally get rid of our worn-out VHS copies. Since that time, consumers have seen many terrific double dips: from The Matrix to The Fly, classic films have been revisited with a keen eye for detail and a new wave of technical proficiency. Unfortunately, The Achiever's Edition---a fancy boxed set version of the "regular" re-release---still comes up a little short overall, though the film itself hasn't been altered in any way. It's a bit stronger in the packaging and extras departments, but Universal could certainly do much better than they've done here (thankfully, at least there aren't any authoring defects to report this time around). No matter what, you'll certainly have no problem enjoying the film. Again.
Quality Control Department
Video Quality - Achiever's Edition: 4.0 | Original Release: 3.0
Screen Comparisons - 1 |
2b (detail) [AE = Top, OR = Bottom]
(NOTE: These image differences are much more evident on an actual TV screen)
The new disc offers a noticeable improvement, but it's still not a perfect visual presentation. Since the fullscreen option has been dropped from this release (the original version squeezed both onto a dual-layered disc), the higher bit rate eliminates nearly all compression problems this time around. Additionally, it looks as it the color palette has been smoothed out and a few instances of dirt and scratches have been removed. With that said, there are still plenty of times where the new image looks a bit soft, with only a high amount of detail present in a handful of brighter scenes. Overall, though, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks very good and shouldn't disappoint. It's certainly not a demo-quality disc, but most fans will notice a substantial difference.
Audio Quality - Achiever's Edition: 4.0 | Original Release: 3.5
There's not much news to report here, as the same English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix has been ported over from the previous release. It's not a terribly involving presentation---with most instances of dialogue and music being anchored squarely up front---but it's clean, clear and good enough to get the job done. New to this release are a 2.0 Spanish mix and a full-fledged French 5.1 mix, though I wouldn't add points for dubbed tracks on principle alone. What does earn the extra half point is the addition of brand new English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing (presented in the typical Universal style), though the optional French and Spanish subs are also still on board.
Presentation & Packaging - Achiever's Edition: 4.5 | Original Release: 3.5
Although I really liked the original "neon" menu design (seen here), the new ones (as seen above) are great as well. It's always nice to see menus that are nice to look at and easy to navigate, though it's really only a mild improvement as best. The 108-minute film is still divided into 22 chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. The packaging for this Achiever's Edition is especially nice and will be covered in slightly more detail below. The actual keepcase inside the box is the same as the regular re-release, though I'm not really a fan of the cover design. It's a striking image, but I'm sure there were much better images available (like this one, for example).
Bonus Features - Achiever's Edition: 3.5 | Original Release: 2.5
It's the most disappointing aspect of this re-release, but at least the Achiever's Edition offers a few extras that the standard version doesn't. Here's how this boxed set compares to the original:
New to this release is a "Forever Young Films" Introduction (5 minutes); it's done in the same tongue-in-cheek style as the one found on the Blood Simple DVD, but is unfortunately presented in non-anamorphic widescreen (thanks, geniuses!). There's also a new slideshow of Jeff Bridges' Photography (4 minutes) with handwritten captions, though an optional commentary by Bridges would've been better. Also here---and only available to this boxed set---are a few Packaging Extras inside a sweet-looking oversized box, including four coasters (featuring The Dude, Walter, Donny, and Maude Lebowski...but no Jesus!), printed versions of a few Jeff Bridges photos and a bowling towel. Needless to say, there's a thousand ways they could've gone with the packaging extras (glass for White Russians, mini rug/ball/pin, poster prints, etc.), but I'm glad they made some effort.
[Photos of packaging coming soon]
Still on board from the original release is the 25-minute Behind-the-Scenes Featurette---but strangely enough, the accompanying film clips are in much rougher shape and occasionally presented in fullscreen, as seen here [AE = Top, OR = Bottom]. There wasn't much else of interest from the original disc to port over, so that's the only bonus feature left generally intact.
Gone, but not forgotten is a brief Cast/Crew section, though I was fairly disappointed to see the excellent Teaser Trailer missing as well (this is unfortunately quite common on Universal's part).
Obviously, those who get the regular edition of this re-release won't notice much of a difference in extras at all---you'll just get the new introduction and the photos. Though the Coen Bros. are notoriously skimpy on the bonus features, we've gotten halfway-decent special editions out of them with Fargo and The Man Who Wasn't There (the latter even included an audio commentary!), so there's no excuse why we couldn't have gotten a few more scraps. Besides for a much-needed commentary, a featurette on the real-life "Dude" (Jeff Dowd) or the infamous "Lebowski Fest" would have been nice, for starters. An improved transfer is usually enough reason to upgrade, though I'd imagine a lot of people will be on the fence with this new release. NOTE: Just for the record, I'd place the regular version of this re-release squarely on par with the original for extras (2.5/5).
Average Scores - Achiever's Edition: 4.0 | Original Release: 3.125
Unfortunately, this new "Achiever's Edition" of The Big Lebowski doesn't exactly pass with flying colors. It's been years since the original DVD was released, so many fans will be expecting huge improvements that just aren't there. With that said, this disc is still fairly solid: it's got a moderately improved technical presentation, but the only way you'll really notice a real difference in the other departments is by shelling out $40 or so for this boxed set. It may be a tough sell, but those who really love this near-perfect film know that it's definitely the main selling point. Universal needs a swift kick in the trousers for consistently dropping the ball on re-releases---but, let's face it, any DVD for a film like The Big Lebowski is bound to be ultimately less than perfect. Mildly Recommended.
Other Links of Interest: Visit one of many national Lebowski Fests...or else!
Randy Miller III is a moderately affable art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA, who also enjoys freelance graphic design and illustration. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.