NOTE: Portions of this review have been plucked, repeated and/or revised from my verbose write-up of The Big Lebowski: Achiever's Edition, which paired Universal's 2005 Collector's Edition with a handful of packaging goodies. The linked review also includes a comparison with Polygram's 2000 release.
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...the millionaire. 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.
When fans of The Big Lebowski begged and pleaded for a Special Edition DVD several years back, who'd have ever thought we'd get one too many? Originally issued on DVD in 2000 as a dual widescreen/fullscreen disc with lackluster A/V quality and minimal bonus features, Universal eventually followed up with a 2005 Collector's Edition. In short: the A/V presentation was modestly improved, but the bonus features still weren't up to par. An HD-DVD release followed shortly thereafter, which didn't add anything new to the extras but contains the best A/V presentation to date. Their fourth and latest attempt, dubbed the "10th Anniversary Edition", manages to split the difference: it's only available on standard-def at the moment, but the bonus features represent what we should've gotten three years ago. If that weren't enough, a Limited Edition of this 10th Anniversary release is also available (and the subject of today's review), which houses the two-disc set in fancy new film-themed packaging. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
As expected, this 10th Anniversary Edition uses the same 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer as the 2005 Collector's Edition; it's a strong effort, but not quite perfect. The film's natural color palette has been preserved nicely, image detail is fine and black levels are generally consistent. A few spots of dirt can be seen here and there (as well as trace amounts of edge enhancement), but it's nothing major and hardly worth fussing over. It's odd that a Blu-Ray version hasn't been announced yet...but until that fateful day, the HD-DVD and both recent standard-def releases will have to suffice.
Likewise, the same English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix has been ported over from the 2005 release. Overall, it's not a terribly involving presentation, since most of the dialogue and music cues are anchored squarely up front...but it's still good enough to get the job done. The remainder of the audio specs also mirror the 2005 Collector's Edition: a 2.0 Spanish mix and a full-fledged French 5.1 mix are still on board, as well as English (SDH), French and Spanish subtitles during the main feature and most of the extras.
NOTE: Those not interested in the fancy packaging should opt for the Standard Edition, which packs the same two-disc set in a standard keepcase with spiffy cover art. Either way, fans of The Big Lebowski can't lose.
Disc 1 is also home to a pair of brand new retrospective featurettes. "The Dude's Life" (10:08) is a character-minded piece with comments from Joel and Ethan Coen, Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore and John Turturro. The participants share a few stories about the film's production, but this is mostly just a light-hearted dissection of their respective alter egos. From top to bottom, it's an enjoyable series of chats and certainly worth watching. In a similar vein is "The Dude Abides: The Big Lebowski Ten Years Later" (10:27), which features the same participants sharing more in-depth production stories. Peppered with behind-the-scenes photos and rehearsal footage, this piece also hints at The Big Lebowski's cultural impact as it's gained momentum in the last decade.
Also tacked on to the first disc is the film's Theatrical Trailer (2:29), which I don't remember seeing on any previous releases. Notably absent, however, is the film's excellent teaser trailer---so if you're a die-hard completist, you might want to hang on to the 2000 Polygram release.
Disc 2 includes a number of new extras as well, leading off with "The Lebowski Fest: Excepts from The Achievers" (13:55, above left), a documentary written and directed by Eddie Chung. This brief portrait of the film's infamous fan conventions is a real treat to see, from the film-themed activities to the enthusiastic costumed guests. A few of The Big Lebowski's supporting characters also make appearances here, which the fans in attendance obviously seem to appreciate. It's unknown if Chung's full-length documentary is available as a stand-alone DVD release, but this section will be updated if new shit comes to light.
"Flying Carpets and Bowling Pin Dreams: The Dream Sequences of The Dude" (4:20 - no kidding!) offers a brief look at the film's surreal dream scenes with comments from the Coens, Moore and Bridges, as well as more snippets of behind-the-scenes footage and photographs. This segues nicely into one of the most entertaining new extras, "Jeff Bridges' Photo Book" (17:30, above right), a Dude-guided tour of the keepsake he assembled and distributed to cast and crew members. Bridges obviously has a great eye for composition and shares plenty of entertaining stories along the way, offering viewers a refreshingly laid-back glimpse at this truly unique souvenir.
Closing things out is the rather curious Interactive Map feature, which provides brief tours of several key locations seen during the film (including The Dude's pad, the coffee shop, Maude's loft, Sobchak Security and the bowling alley, among several other hot spots). All of these snippets feature video footage of the locations and several corresponding film clips, along with voice-over narration. This rounds out the bonus features quite nicely---and aside from a cast commentary and maybe a few more featurettes, there's a satisfying amount of content here...especially for a Coen Bros. film.
As luck (or procrastination) would have it, the fourth time's the charm for The Big Lebowski on DVD. After a pair of lackluster standard-definition releases and a mildly satisfying HD effort, Universal finally hits paydirt with this well-rounded two-disc set that fans should enjoy. Though a slightly tweaked technical presentation would've been icing on the cake, it's great to finally have a bigger serving of worthwhile bonus features---and thankfully enough, just about everything from the earlier discs has been ported over. If you have yet to purchase The Big Lebowski on DVD (which, at this point, would be next to impossible), this affordable 10th Anniversary release is certainly the way to go. Whether you opt for the Standard Edition or this visually impressive Limited Edition, disciples of The Dude should certainly appreciate Universal's attention to detail. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.