I often begin my reviews with a quotation from the film under discussion, but in the case of The Big Lebowski, the Coen Bros' (Joel and Ethan) follow-up to their critically heralded crime thriller Fargo, there was no way I could choose one. Practically every single line in the picture is quotable, but the movie is more than just a set of funny dialogue. It is, in a way, the culmination of all the films the Coens had made up to that point.
The Big Lebowski is, of course, the story of The Dude (Jeff Bridges). You know, The Dude. His Dudeness, Duder, or El Duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing. Anyway, the Dude spends his days bowling, driving around, having the occasional acid trip. Most of his time is devoted to the bowling part, and he always plays with his league partners, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Theodore Donald 'Donny' Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi). Things seem to be rollin' along pretty okay for the Dude, when one day, a pair of men burst into his house, shove his head down the toilet, and demand money from him. Seems that it's a big misunderstanding. You see, the Dude's real name is Jeffrey Lebowski. Turns out there's another Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), who happens to be a millionaire. His wife, Bunny (Tara Reid in one of the two good roles in her career) owes money all over town, including known pornographers. At first, the Dude just takes it as one crazy mix-up, but there's a slight hitch. One of the intruders, in an act of aggression, urinates on the Dude's rug. A valued rug. A rug that really tied the room together. So, with some prompting from Walter, the Dude deigns to meet the other Lebowski, the Big Lebowski, in order to get a new rug. In doing so, he happens across Bunny. Just a few hours later, the Dude gets a call from the Big Lebowski. Bunny has been kidnapped, and the Big Lebowski hires the Dude to be the bag man for the ransom demand. Of course, Walter comes along for the ride, and screws everything up. And that's just the start of a bizarre and hilarious caper as only the Coens' could deliver.
The Big Lebowski is a one-of-a-kind film. I don't know what kind of insane conversation led Joel and Ethan Coen to create the Dude, Walter, or the host of other characters that litter this film, but I'm glad they did. Even among the Coens' varied catalogue, The Big Lebowski stands as their most instantly recognizable. And, in a way, it works as more than just a comedy. I can see hints of all of the Coens' previous work in the film, especially the zany antics of Raising Arizona and the unflinching surrealism of Barton Fink. And the cast reads like a who's who of Coen regulars.
One major exception is Jeff Bridges, who was new to the Coen stable, but perfectly portrayed deadbeat Jeffrey Lebowski. In fact, his performance seems so effortless that most people overlook it when faced with his more dramatic turns in Starman, The Fisher King, or Arlington Road. The Dude is so lazy that instead of dressing himself, he wears an undershirt and boxers (unless he's bowling). He's a man who is so lazy that he just repeats phrases he's heard throughout the day, completely out of context, whether they came from a conversation or something he overheard on the TV. But, as the film says, "Sometimes...there's a man." And Jeff Bridges plays that man. This is the kind of role that is so fun and so hilarious that no matter what else Jeff Bridges does, he'll never be able to quite shake the "Dudeness" aura that surrounds him.
While Bridges holds the film together, and is constantly a source of humor, you might be able to get away with calling him a straight man for John Goodman, here playing Walter Sobchak. I'm a huge Goodman fan, to the point where I even own a copy of King Ralph. And it's no secret that Goodman is probably the Coens' favorite actor, turning in film-stealing performances in most of their movies. And his work in The Big Lebowski results in another classic Goodman-Coen collaboration. Goodman is gleefully over the top, spewing nonsense about Vietnam, the State of Israel, and many other absurdities with such force and willful intent that you almost find yourself agreeing with him just due to the sheer strength of his convictions.
The rest of the cast leaves equally strong impressions. Steve Buscemi as Donny has a brilliantly conceived role, purposely underplayed and always caving under the weight of Walter's verbal assaults. John Turturro does some of his quirkiest work as Jesus, a sex-offender bowling opponent of the Dude and his team. Philip Seymour Hoffman shines in a small role perfectly suited for him. Julianne Moore is the perfect counterpoint to the Dude, someone whose pretensions are packed so high that it makes even her yearn for the down-to-earthness that the Dude provides. Peter Stormare and Flea are brilliant as nihilists (they believe in nozhing!) with a marmot. A nice marmot.
I could spend all day describing The Big Lebowski. But it must really be seen to get the full experience, as is true with any of the Coens' best works. And have no doubts, although the films seems to be played entirely on the surface, it's a Coen Bros. masterpiece on a technical and aesthetic level. And no matter what else, the Dude abides. I don't know about you, but I take some comfort in that.
The HD DVD:
Universal presents The Big Lebowski in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, in a VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer. The quality of Universal's catalogue releases have varied wildly as of late, but I'm relieved and excited to say that The Big Lebowski gets a nice treatment. As the film opens, there are some edge enhancement issues, but as we warm up to the meat of the picture, these smooth away, leaving a detailed and pleasing image. The colors are stable, and I could see tons of new details I could never make out before. Towards the end of the movie, there's a few scenes (especially a specific montage) that suffers from print damage and slight softness. Aside from these few image hiccups, a major improvement over any of the DVD editions. Outside of the theater, this is the best The Big Lebowski has looked in a long time.
Universal offers a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix for this HD DVD release. While The Big Lebowski clearly has tons of amazing dialogue, let's not forget that a majority of the movie takes place in a bowling alley. I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of use my surrounds got, with nice dynamics between the quieter and louder scenes. A nice job by Universal, and a step up from the DVD.
While all of the extras from the 2005 special edition have been ported over, that doesn't amount to all that much.
- Forever Young Films Introduction: A long running inside joke, Forever Young Films is the Coens' parody of a respectable restoration house. On the DVD release of Blood Simple, the Coens' debut feature, there was a hilarious and tongue-in-cheek commentary by a Forever Young Films' "film historian." The Big Lebowski gets an equally funny, although obviously shorter introduction, with a couple of barbed attacks on film studios crossed with some good restoration sight gags.
- The Making of The Big Lebowski: A 25-minute featurette from an older DVD edition, this extra seems fairly perfunctory and uninteresting, despite having interviews with the Coens.
- Photos by Jeff Bridges: These were taken on the set of the film and have a wonderful "fly on the wall" quality to them.
There's really nothing else out there like The Big Lebowski. The Coens' have made many great films, some of which may be considered "better" than this, but they never made one funnier or more bizarre (and yes, I include Barton Fink in that statement). There's something magical about seeing Jeff Bridges play the laziest bum of a man who finds himself dragged in to all kinds of surreal situations. The supporting cast is beyond outstanding, with Coen regulars John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and John Turturro all doing wonderful work. This HD DVD edition offers improved picture and sound over any DVD version, and while the supplements could offer more, this disc is still very Highly Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.