The Big Lebowski Limited Edition Blu-ray ReviewAugust 11, 2011
The Big Lebowski is a study in paradoxes.
It's a movie with engaging characters that are, with rare exception, poorly characterized. It has fantastic dialogue, but very little is ever truly said. It's a story in which all the loose ends are tied up, and yet there's no resolution.
It's ambiguous and amorphous, and yet it still pops with electric sparks of life.
The Coen Brothers' 1998 cult hit, their follow-up to 1996's critical darling Fargo, has endured both in spite of and because of its eccentricities and inconsistencies, and remains a strangely-entertaining melting pot of scenes and scenarios regardless of its flaws as it comes to Blu-ray for the first time.
The film follows Jeff Lebowski, or as he prefers to be known, the Dude (Jeff Bridges in the role that will – True Grit and Crazy Heart notwithstanding – forever mark his defining performance). The Dude's life consists primarily of bowling with his buddies Walter (the amazing John Goodman) and Donnie (Steve Buscemi), getting stoned, and knocking back White Russians.
But when he's mistaken for a millionaire who shares his name (the titular Big Lebowski), the Dude's routine becomes a bit more complex than usual. He becomes buried deep within a kidnapping plot that quickly turns his life upside down and results in the theft or defiling of a pair of rugs that carry some special meaning for him ("It really tied the room together, man," the Dude reminds us more than a few times).
The first few paragraphs of this review might suggest that I'm not particularly fond of The Big Lebowski, but they are essentially summing up my own feelings about the film which are paradoxical in nature.
I find that I enjoy the movie quite a bit, but I just don't think it's all that great.
Too many reviews (particularly a lot of the ones you'll find online) have a difficult time detaching those two ideas from one another, which is strange, because they aren't mutually exclusive notions. It is possible to enjoy a bad movie, just as it's equally possible to be bored or flat-out repulsed by a great movie.
That's essentially the category into which Lebowski falls for me.
First, the pros: This movie is an absolute testament to the ability of a cast's performance to effortlessly carry a work of cinema. There's not a single performer in this piece who isn't giving an absolutely brilliant showcase of their talents.
Jeff Bridges, as noted earlier, gives the performance of a lifetime as the Dude. If the man had never won the Academy Award, it's likely that he would've been given a lifetime achievement award down the line based solely on his work in this film.
And it's not just because the man does a good job at playing a funny bum. Throw a rock and you'll hit an actor who can amuse you by playing a lazy, easy-going stoner. Bridges plays a stoner whose buzz is continually harshed not only by the high-stakes world into which he's been thrown, but by his best friends' attempts to help him cope with the rapid-fire changes going on around him.
The Dude is a calm and collected Zen master who's continually getting shoved against a wall, and Bridges finds a perfect balance of "It's cool, man" and "Back the fuck off!" which is, I think, a colossal part of this picture's appeal.
Then there's John Goodman, who's always done his best work for the Coens. His loud-mouthed, overly-aggressive take on the Dude's main man, Walter, is vintage Goodman. Walter may not have the most quotable lines in the movie, but he does have the funniest and the most outrageous, delivered to sheer perfection by the larger-than-life Goodman.
Goodman's performances are never chameleon-like; you always know exactly what to expect from him as soon as you're introduced to his character. That may not sound like an amazing talent, but the man's performances continually keep an audience grounded in an otherwise outlandish world.
It's a subtle talent, but it's one that Goodman milks for all it's worth in this film.
There are tons of other great performances in The Big Lebowski, including a hilarious turn from the eternally-underrated Julianne Moore as the wealthier Lebowski's estranged daughter, Maude. There's also Phillip Seymour Hoffman delivering a brilliant, understated performance as the Big Lebowski's manservant, Brant.
And, of course, there's John Tuturro as the Jesus. My words can never hope to do this brief but remarkable performance justice.
(Also, as a big Potter fan, I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I had completely forgotten about David Thewlis's cameo in the picture).
The look and style of the film is on par with the quality of its cast's performances. Joel and Ethan Coen have always had a knack for mixing a gritty, true-to-life atmosphere with their own unique and quirky sense of humor, but with The Big Lebowski, they sprinkle just a little grandeur on top.
If you were to look at the Coens' filmography up until this movie as their film school, you would consider The Big Lebowski their dissertation, combining everything they had learned up to that point. This is a movie that combines the static-but-energetic style of Raising Arizona with the edgier, shakier movement of Fargo and throws in a dash of the whimsical nature of The Hudsucker Proxy.
Joel directed The Big Lebowski solo, but there's no question that this film was the culmination of their collaborative efforts up to that point, and it seems to be almost an announcement to the film industry that they were ready for greatness and were no longer content to be the wacky, quirky cousins of filmmaking.
And they very nearly succeeded.
Which leads us into the film's cons, the biggest of which is simple: The filmmaker's reach exceeded their grasp.
What any great movie needs is a great story, and while The Big Lebowski clearly wants to have a great story it falls short. It comes across as the rare case when a film's execution outshines the possibilities in its conception.
The Big Lebowski's problems all lay within its story's structure (or rather, its lack thereof). There are lots of twists and turns during the course of the Dude's journey, but none of them led anywhere. As noted earlier, this is a movie in which all of the story threads are tied up very neatly, but when the dust is settled it has no resolution.
It simply ends.
Whether the conclusion of The Big Lebowski was by design or not, a story must have a resolution. Otherwise it's just a collection of interconnected vignettes.
Of course, given the fact that my own final thoughts on the film are ambiguous at best, perhaps I have little room to talk.
See how unsatisfying that was?
The Big Lebowski makes its Blu-ray debut with a stunning 1080p AVC-1 transfer that looks absolutely gorgeous. It maintains the gritty, grainy feel that the Coens have made their signature over the years, but the film's lavish dream sequences and musical numbers seamlessly come to life in high definition. There's a bare minimum of noise, and less than a handful of crushed blacks.
The positive aspects of the movie's visual presentation far outweigh the negatives. Frankly, this movie has never looked better.
As for the audio, Universal has released the film with a lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Personally, I hope the folks who worked on this disc's sound design got a huge bonus, as this is one of the best-sounding Blu-rays I've ever owned.
Because as much as this is a film that revolves around dialogue, it's the sound effects that truly bring everything to life. There's a point in the picture where Walter leaps from a moving car and drops an Uzi on the ground starts firing upon impact with the ground. It's a brief moment, but it's a microcosm of the attention to detail shown in the sound mix.
Every last line, sound effect, and piece of music live in perfect harmony with one another to make – yeah, I'll go ahead and say it – the best sound mix I've yet heard on a Blu-ray Disc.
Beyond the Feature
Many of the disc's extras come directly from the 2008 10th anniversary DVD edition, but there's a wealth of features to choose from.
The Dude's Life (10 minutes, 2008) – A collection of interviews with the main cast, discussing the characters. Pretty in-depth stuff for a brief featurette.
The Dude Abides: The Big Lebowski Ten Years Later (10 minutes, 2008) – This is a 10-year retrospective on the film featuring interviews from the Coen brothers and the cast regarding the film's transformation from a largely-ignored follow-up to Fargo into a cult phenomenon.
Making the Big Lebowski (24 minutes, 1998) – A short doc that chronicles the film's journey from conception to production. It's nothing earth-shattering, but it's a fun little glimpse into the past.
The Lebowskifest: An Achiever's Story (13 minutes, 2008) – A few minutes from the documentary of the same name which follows the annual, traveling convention that examines how the film has attracted fans from all walks of life.
Flying Carpets and Bowling Pin Dreams: The Dream Sequences of the Dude (4 minutes, 2008) – A short but fascinating look at the creation of the movie's wild and imaginative dream sequences.
Interactive Map – This feature presents a map that follows the Dude's journey across Los Angeles and presents little tidbits of information about each location.
Jeff Bridges' Photo Book (17 minutes, 2008) – Star Jeff Bridges takes us through a photo book he made during production and gave to the cast and crew as a wrap gift back in 1998. Bridges's affection for the movie can be seen in all of the special features, but it's on display in full blast in this feature. A very refreshing reminder that some actors truly do treasure the work they do.
Photo Gallery – A collection of photos taken on the set, including a handful from Bridges's book.
An Introduction – A unique "introduction" to the film from Mortimer Young, a man dedicated to preserving "non-uptight" movies.
The disc also boasts a wide variety of Universal's U-CONTROL features:
Scene Companion – A picture-in-picture companion containing cast interviews and behind-the-scenes footage that runs alongside the movie.
Mark it Dude – An on-screen counter of all the F-bombs and Dude-isms scattered throughout the film.
The Music of The Big Lebowski – Another pop-up feature that identifies the songs played during the movie.
Worthy Adversaries: What's My Line Trivia – A one-or-two-player trivia game that challenges the viewer to finish lines from the movie.
The packaging also contains a collector's-style book, featuring bits of trivia and some of the more famous lines from the movie.
At the end of the day, I'm not the world's biggest fan of The Big Lebowski. I don't see it as the cult classic that much of the rest of the world does.
But that doesn't mean it's not a fun, enjoyable movie, structural defects notwithstanding. And its presentation in high definition is truly beautiful.
Whether you're a hardcore fan or you simply have a mild appreciation for the picture, The Big Lebowski on Blu-ray is definitely worth adding to your collection.
- Jason Jarman
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