If it doesn't get derailed by anti- Coen backlash -- the filmmakers have always faced a vocal opposition from fans that complain about their use of stereotypes -- The Big Lebowski looks to become one of their true classics. The picture rescued the wonderful Jeff Bridges from some frustrating career disappointments in the 1990s; his Jeffrey Lebowski character "The Dude" is a true original that seems a comedy summation of moviemaking and Southern California slacker culture.
The Dude is a holdover from the late 1960s, sort of a mellowed-out stoner who never surrendered his roach clip in the face of a changing America. He effectively redefines "California casual". A slacker slob happy with his role as a social misfit, The Dude takes it all in stride. He slouches to the market in a bathrobe and slippers, to steal a drink of milk right out of the carton. His only social life is his rapport with his bowling buddies Donny (Steve Buscemi) and Walter (John Goodman). Donny is a passive nice guy without a mean bone in his body. Walter is the kind of fellow who should be on meds, as he veers into uncontrollable idiocy at the drop of a hat. He harps constantly on his Vietnam experience, obsessing over slights to the military and quick to use his veteran status to start arguments. Walter is funny because his actions are so exaggerated; he's prone to drawing a .45 automatic whenever a social confrontation doesn't go his way.: "Am I the only one around here who gives a s___ about the rules?"
Both Jeffrey and Walter are prehistoric survivors from the Vietnam era, comic clowns in a state of arrested social development. Jeff Bridges played an authentic beach-bum slacker in the essential post-Vietnam hangover drama Cutter's Way; this comedy seems a continuation of what the same character might become after twenty years of dope and thirty pounds of fat. Walter is as equally deranged as was John Heard's Cutter. That replays an old pattern: The Big Lebowski is to <Cutter's Way what Donovan's Reef is to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Enemies in the elegiac John Ford Western, John Wayne and his Lee Marvin brawl and booze their way to peace and happiness in a South Seas fantasy.
That comparison didn't occur to me until viewing this new Blu-ray of The Big Lebowski. And in the interest of full transparency, I didn't pick up on the Coens' more obvious point of reference, Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, for years. Detective Philip Marlowe is summoned to the mansion of a wheelchair-bound millionaire. One of his daughters is a nymphomaniac and the other is a suspicious but sensual woman of the world. Marlowe gets in trouble with gangsters and is sent on a morphine-induced drug trip. The Dude more or less experiences the same process -- roughed up by tough guys and mistreated by the cops. He even meets a "Mr. Big" vice-lord. But most of the same things happen, including a highly stylized sequence of drug delirium. Instead of Marlowe's threatening syringes and whirlpools, The Dude experiences a full-on Busby Berkeley musical number, complete with references to specific shots from 42nd Street and Golddiggers of 1935. The Dude's fantasy looks like a porn-inflected music video, with plenty of bowling imagery sifted into the mix. To the rock tune "I Just Dropped In to See What Condition my Condition Was In", Saddam Hussein himself gives The Dude his bowling shoes.
The Coens' writing is as amusing as ever, with perhaps more quotable dialogue per minute than any movie they've made. Oafish Walter sorely maltreats poor Donny, and then of course swings much too far the other way when it comes time to be sympathetic to his harmless friend. The business with The Dude's Rug and the pompous "other" Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston) is too funny for words. This is a standout early career part for Philip Seymour Hoffman as the millionaire's sycophantic aide, always polishing his employer's shaky image.
The Dude's adventures vary in interest and cleverness, with the weird avant-garde artist Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) dishing out helpful hints to the would-be detective. Her character aligns with Lauren Bacall from the Howard Hawks film. The Dude also crosses paths with German "nihilsts" led by Peter Stormare, various thugs and a kid in the valley who Walter assumes has run off with an enormous ransom payment. Included for additional competitive bowling weirdness is John Turturro as Jesus Quintana, an impossibly oily bowling freak who looks, dresses and acts like a complete pervert. At times The Big Lebowski threatens to leave the rails, owing to too many characters that belong in a sideshow. It also suffers from the "all profanity, all the time" syndrome that befell so many movies in the wake of Pulp Fiction. Writing characters that swear to outrageous excess doesn't make one a Tarantino or a Scorsese, it just signifies laziness.
Luckily, at the center of it all is Jeff Bridges, who is given a signature tagline -- "The Dude Abides" -- probably adapted from a Lillian Gish dialogue nugget in Night of the Hunter. As if continuing the "legend told" gimmick of Raising Arizona, the Coens insert a fantastic storyteller / witness to greatness character, "The Stranger" (Sam Elliott). Through his bushy mustache, the bemused Stranger trades friendly small talk with The Dude, giving the audience a wink as the soundtrack blossoms with music by The Sons of the Pioneers.
Making effective if brief appearances are David Thewlis, Jon Polito, and Ben Gazarra as an outrageously rich pornographer. Tara Reid is the oversexed Bunny Lebowski. When all is said and done, The Big Lebowski leaves us with an amused smile on our faces. The Coens would perpetrate one more comic masterpiece, O Brother, Where Art Thou? before a slide into less effective comedies, good but less original work such as Burn After Reading, and more serious fare like the impressively bleak No Country for Old Men.. Jeff Bridges made an amusing Rooster Cogburn in last year's True Grit, but for sheer invention his John Wayne retread can't hold a candle to the wonderful Dude Lebowski.
Hey, I hung around Venice and Santa Monica in the early 1970s and I I knew a number of laid-back dreamers. Most had more going for them than The Dude, but one or two had his exact grinning, what the hell attitude. It's fun seeing the type celebrated like this.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment's Blu-ray of The Big Lebowski is a handsome HD transfer that conveys all the color and warmth of Roger Deakins' cinematography. An additional French track is included and subs are encoded in English, French and Spanish.
Universal has anointed The Big Lebowski with a number of amusing featurettes, including the expected making-of piece, an honorific to The Dude and a recap of the character's growing fame. Other features are a Jeff Bridges Photo Book, an interactive map, and a photo gallery. The disc also contains a code to download a digital copy of the film. Universal's package text touts its U-Control extras, which amount to an enhanced trivia track and a set of counters that monitor the film's profanity, mentions of the word "Dude" and other errata. Another Blu-ray exclusive is a dialogue trivia quiz that challenges one's knowledge of the film's quotable Dude-isms.
A colorful souvenir booklet in the disc's book packaging billboards most of these quotes. In addition to the expected fun fluff, the booklet has a short piece on a fellow named Dowd, the reported inspiration for the Jeffrey Lebowski character. I don't want to be The Dude, but I love the guy's ratty old sweater -- it looks like the most comfortable article of clothing in movie history.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Big Lebowski Blu-ray rates:
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