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The Big Lebowski

(1998) *** 1/2 R
117 min. PolyGram Films. Director: Joel Coen. Cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston.

/content/films/4163/1.jpgIt's a motif in Coen Brothers films to employ a virtuosic shot of an inanimate object: a hat or a hula hoop doing the Coens' whim seemingly by magic. In The Big Lebowski, the object is a tumbleweed, which—to the tune of its theme song, the Sons of the Pioneers' "Tumbling Tumbleweeds"—opens the film by rolling down from high plains into the Los Angeles Basin. It's one of the Brothers' plainest symbols, representing the film's main character, "The Dude," who drifts lazily through life. But it could also be read as another iteration of the Coens' worldview that shit happens, by random, depending on which way the godless wind is blowing.

Playing The Dude is Jeff Bridges, the man once described by critic Pauline Kael as "the most natural and least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived." That canny assessment applies well to Bridges in Lebowski, endowing the Dude as he does with a goodhearted dimness and a zen capacity for recovery and contentedness that any tortured intellectual would envy. These qualities serve the Dude well when he's tested by a week that turns his life into a celebration of cinema genres, primarily the private-detective mystery. Loosely inspired by Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, The Big Lebowski essays what happens when The Dude, whose birth name is Jeffrey Lebowski, gets mixed up with a millionaire (David Huddleston) by the same name. The entanglement involves an inept kidnapping scheme, The Dude's attempt to collect restitution for a damaged carpet, and sundry other collateral damage against the backdrop of the Gulf War. (For the record, brothers Ethan & Joel Coen always co-write their scripts, while Ethan takes producer credit and Joel the director credit.)

It would be easy to try to make too much of The Big Lebowski, but to do so would be to fall into a quintessential Coen-esque trap. Like all Coen films, this one is as meaningless as it is potentially profound, but above all, Coen films are always tightly scripted, brilliantly performed, thoughtful dialogues on classic film genres with a tart sense of humor. In The Dude, the Coens offer an upbeat philosophical approach to cruel fate: roll with the punches and "abide" (one of the film's many, many quotable lines: "The Dude abides"). For what is the alternative? We see them in The Dude's orbit, most notably in his bowling buddies Walter Sobchak (John Goodman, in a hilarious, semi-affectionate parody of writer-director John Milius) and Donny (Steve Buscemi): the former is a high-strung, survivalist "patriot" who invites trouble, while the latter fruitlessly expects answers in life but is destined to remain eternally clueless.

The Dude also encounters avant-garde artist Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), who's determined to collect his semen; a pack of nihilists (including Flea and Fargo fave Peter Stormare); porn impresario Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara); Cuban-American registered sex offender Jesus Quintana (Coen regular John Turturro); and a mysterious, drawling "Stranger" (Sam Elliott) in cowboy garb. The encounters of The Dude and The Stranger (who amusingly serves as narrator) suggest the film could be an East-meets-Western as well as a neo-noir comedy, and if all this playfulness makes the result feel slight, give it a return viewing or two or three. It's a cult movie proven to grow on audiences, and its visual punch (abetted by stalwart Coen cinematographer Roger Deakins), off-kilter dialogue, and dedication to forward motion—it's one thing after another—make Lebowski eminently watchable. It's the whole proud, embarrassing sociopolitical, cultural heap of American history-and the American Century in particular-in two fleet, funny hours. Or have I made too much of it?

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 8/16/2011

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainement


Universal rolls out the red carpet (and ties the room together) with the Blu-ray debut of The Big Lebowski in a handsome Digibook release. The glossy, full-color, 28-page Digibook includes a symbolic "roadmap" of the film, short essays, interview with Jeff "The Dude" Dowd, trivia (and trivia quiz), character guide, sampling of Jeff Bridges' set photographs, movie quotes, critical blurbs, and behind-the-scenes cast and crew quotations. Leaping over DVD, the Blu-ray's hi-def transfer impresses with its film-like texture, vividly improved color representation, and noticeable boost in detail. The transfer isn't perfect (edge enhancement, a touch of aliasing, and mild crush in the shadows hold a top score at bay)—call it a spare and not a strike—but this is definitely as good as the film has looked on home video and much better than the standard-def DVDs. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track can be considered definitive, likewise trouncing standard-def with surprisingly powerful dynamics and ambience, as well as full-bodied music and crucially clear dialogue.

The previously released "Exclusive Introduction" (4:40, SD) returns here, and it's a total hoot. Prepared by the Coens, this fictional introduction features film restorer "Mortimer Young" of "Forever Young Films." Enjoy.

Universal's patented U-Control blu-ray bonuses here include Scene Companion PiP video cast and crew interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, Mark it Dude counter tallying up profanities and "Dude-isms," and The Music of The Big Lebowski, identifying the source-music cuts as they play in the film.

"Jeff Bridges Photo Book" (17:30, HD) is a great look at a Jeff Bridges tradition of set photography; this feature allows viewers to share in the gift Bridges presented to his colleagues when the film wrapped.

Worthy Adversaries: What's My Line Trivia is an interactive feature allowing the viewer to "play along" with the film, a la a cult screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Retrospectives "The Dude's Life" (10:08, HD) and "The Dude Abides: The Big Lebowski Ten Years Later" (10:27, HD) gather humorous and reflective reminiscences about the film and its legacy from Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi and John Turturro.

"The Lebowski Fest: An Achiever's Story" (13:53, SD) is an excerpt from the documentary The Achievers, focusing on the Lebowski Fest phenomenon.

"Flying Carpets and Bowling Pin Dreams: The Dream Sequences of The Dude" (4:20, HD) briefly hones in on exactly what the title describes.

"The Making of The Big Lebowski" (24:35, SD) includes comments from the Coen Brothers, along with others in the cast and crew.

Also available here are a "Photo Gallery" (3:25, SD), Interactive Map of filming locations, and BD-Live and pocketBLU functionality.

This is the ultimate edition of The Big Lebowski: fans should not hesitate to collect it in best-quality HD, along with new extras and fantastic packaging.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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