There is a point during his introduction of Jeff "the Dude" Lebowski when the Stranger, as voiced by Sam Elliott, is describing his subject and says, "Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there." While this might be applicable to the Dude, it wasn't necessarily so for his movie, The Big Lebowski. The Coen Bros. follow-up to Fargo was hotly anticipated, but coolly received on its initial release. It got mostly positive reviews and made back its money, but there seemed to be this feeling that it really wasn't the triumph everyone was expecting.
Then, as things often do, the perception shifted, and over the years, The Big Lebowski became one of the most beloved, most talked about, and most quoted movies of the last ten years, as evidenced here by the 10th Anniversary Edition DVD, by most counts the fourth such release of the flick. Just like Jesus Christ , a figure that the Dude is arguably meant to invoke, Lebowski came to save us and we didn't know how to accept his love. I'll admit, I didn't really get it the first time I saw it, as I often didn't fully comprehend a lot of the Coens' output around this time. I was always so surprised by what new directions they wanted to take me in, the first viewing was mainly to get my bearings, and the second one was when I could sit back and enjoy it.
It's not that the plot of The Big Lebowski is so dense that it requires a flow chart to understand it. Unlike some of the hardboiled mysteries it is an homage to, it's actually explained quite clearly over the course of the picture. The essential summary goes that Jeff Lebowski, played by Jeff Bridges in a manner no one else could ever possibly match, is a stoner layabout who is one day mistaken for a different Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston). The Big Lebowski, as opposed to the Dude, is a wealthy man who does a lot of great community service but who also has a young trophy wife (Tara Reid) who has run up quite a load of debt with unsavory people. It's the collection of one of these debts that sends a couple of thugs to the Dude's house, thinking he's the other Lebowski, and one of them even relieves himself on Dude's rug before realizing their mistake. It's a shame, too, because that rug really tied the room together.
Spurred on by his friend Walter (John Goodman), a member of the Dude's bowling team and a Vietnam Vet with issues, the Dude goes to the Big Lebowski seeking compensation. Though all he wants is a new rug, he ends up being part of a greater mystery. Mrs. Lebowski gets herself kidnapped, and the Dude is asked to be the bagman for the ransom. In the course of his chiba-rattled efforts to fulfill his duties, the Dude will run afoul of a gang of nihilists, a pornographer (Ben Gazzara), Lebowski's daughter from his first marriage (Julianne Moore), and even a private detective (Jon Polito) sent to find Bunny Lebowski for completely different reasons. Amidst all this, the Dude will endure beatings, spilled beverages, and constant interruptions to his bowling game. The latter is a tragedy of the highest order, as the Dude and Walter are in a trio with their pal Donny (Steve Buscemi) and are about to enter into the league finals. Coen-regular Jon Turturro makes perhaps the most memorable of the many memorable cameos in the movie playing Jesus, the divinely named sex-offender bowling fetishist who constantly promises to do various unsavory things to the boys on the lanes.
The enduring legacy of The Big Lebowski can be credited to many things. There is, of course, the quirky stylings of Joel and Ethan Coen, which includes their off-kilter sense of humor and their virtuoso visual techniques. There is also the litany of amazing performances, lead by Bridges in what the Stranger would likely describe as the perfect meeting of actor and role, the right performer for his time. Even given all of the fine movies Jeff Bridges has starred in, I would wager he most gets asked about Jeff Lebowski. John Goodman is also quite astonishing, playing his usual verbose voice of misappropriated reason, a staple of Coen films including Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and his turn as the cyclopean salesman in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Many will even wax long and rhapsodic on the virtues of the movie's musical soundtrack.
I would say the biggest reason for The Big Lebowski's cult status, however, is its ability to be all things to all people. For a goofball comedy, it is wide open to interpretation and welcomes fans to hang all manner of equally goofball theories on it. There is the aforementioned religious reading. Is the Big Lebowski a version of the Almighty, and the beatific Dude his son? Or instead of religion, it could be a philosophical comedy, with the Dude as a Zen Buddhist heading into enlightenment and Walter as his opposite, a symbol of determinism and America's doctrine of Manifest Destiny. They are Yin and Yang. Donny is the ever-inquisitive common man, lost with no frame of reference. He is the witness.
The Big Lebowski is also an L.A. story. The plot is pure Raymond Chandler, with the Dude as a kind of bleary-eyed Philip Marlowe stumbling into the truth. (The Coens' acknowledge Robert Altman's 1970s adaptation of Chandler's The Long Goodbye as a reference.) Likewise, it is a movie about the movie industry and the value of greed over art, its musical dream sequences hearkening back to days of Busby Berkeley with the Dude as the everyman success story that made legends of small-town heroes, making us all believe we could go to Hollywood and become a star. He is also his own version of the cowboy, hence the Stranger taking a liking to the Dude's life mission. The Big Lebowski is a tall tale of the Wild West, told in its language. Though, interesting enough, many of these examples are all of men who are not of their time: the misunderstood Messiah coming before his people were ready, or the many figures who represent something that has passed--Marlowe as an image of Arthurian chivalry that has all but died out, the cowboy that hit the edge of the frontier only to find technology gearing up behind him, or the entertainer from Golden Age Hollywood. Or even just the Dude as he is, a holdover from the '60s with no real place in the 1990s.
Of course, The Big Lebowski could also be none of these things. It could just be a ridiculously entertaining movie that never stops surprising and certainly never gets boring. It's as mindless as is it is mind bending, a movie for whatever your mood. You just have to pop it in and let the Dude abide.
I never owned the 2005 Collector's Edition of The Big Lebowski, I had hung on to my original 2000 disc despite the accepted wisdom being that the 2005 reissue was superior in both picture quality and extra content. By all reports, the very good 2005 transfer is kept for this new 10th Anniversary Edition, which is fine because it is quite excellent. A 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, it has good color values throughout and is almost completely free of unintended dirt or digital banding.
There are three audio mixes to choose from: English and French in 5.1 surround, and Spanish in 2.0. There are also subtitles in each of those languages, with the English option being geared toward the deaf and hearing impaired. These specs are again the same as the 2005 Collector's Edition, and are all very good.
In short, those who own the Lebowski disc from three years ago can be happy with what they have as far as technical specs. You have the equivalent of the best that is on the market and that standard is nothing to sneeze at. If, however, you care about having a few more extra features, you might want to consider a trade. Read on....
This two-disc edition spreads a handful of extras, some of which are carried over from previous editions and some of which are new, across the two DVDs. They are kept in a standard-sized DVD case with a hinged tray that allows both discs to fit inside. An additional paper insert is included, advertising Lebowski merchandise on one side and the new Coen Bros. movie Burn After Reading on the other. The trailer for Burn also plays as the DVD loads into the player.
DVD 1 starts off with the very funny video introduction from invented film preservationists ForeverYoung, which first surfaced in 2005. Also repeated on DVD 1 from earlier discs are production notes. Though the full theatrical trailer is included, the memorable teaser trailer that was on the 2000 disc is one notable item that was dropped for the 10th anniversary.
In addition to the repeats, the first disc also has two new features, running around 10 minutes each. "The Dude's Life" is about the characters in the movie, specifically the actors who sat down for interviews: Bridges, Goodman, Moore, Buscemi, and Turturro. Working with the same interviews, "The Dude Abides: The Big Lebowski Ten Years Later" examines the enduring legacy of the movie.
DVD 2 leads with "Making of The Big Lebowski", the half-hour documentary that dates all the way back to the earliest DVD release. The rest of disc 2 is all new, beginning with the "The Lebowski Fest: An Achiever's Story", a 14-minute preview of Eddie Chung's documentary about Lebowski fans and their annual convention. Worth it just for the costumes many of the attendees wear.
"Flying Carpets and Bowling Pin Dreams: The Dream Sequences of the Dude" offers a brief glimpse into some of the design of the dream sequences, including behind-the-scenes footage. This is followed by an Interactive Map, which is made up of a host of short bits about various locations in the movie, from the Dude's house to the bowling alley to Walter's security company and the bridge where they toss the money to the nihilists. Each featurette tells us where in Southern California each sequence was shot and shows us video footage of what the area is like now. Voiceover and interview footage give us anecdotes about the scenes.
A lengthy new feature (17-and-a-half minute), "Jeff Bridges Photo Book" has the actor on camera giving the audience a guided tour through the collection of photos he put together as a gift for cast and crew. Many of these are also featured in a separate Photo Gallery.
Many will still grouse that there is no audio commentary here, but I for one will applaud the Coen reluctance to give a definitive explanation to this gloriously indefinable movie. Just be glad they aren't pranking us and including something that might parody the kind of snoozers that about 80% of audio commentaries are. I'd have died to hear them spending the film's running time forgetting to talk while they laughed at their own work.
Highly Recommended. Movies like The Big Lebowski are one-time deals. There are no films that precede them that anticipate their arrival, and none after that can touch on their unique greatness. In creating the Dude, the Coens Brothers have given film fans a lasting character whose world is our own, just refracted through the residue at the bottom of tumbler full of Kahlua and milk. This new 10th Anniversary Edition brings together the previously released DVD features with some new ones to finally give the film's fans a more comprehensive package. Well worth an upgrade.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.