[box cover]

The Big Lebowski: Collector's Edition

Universal Studios Home Video

Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, and Julianne Moore

Written by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Directed by Joel Coen

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

As a follow-up to their Academy Award winning Fargo (1996), the Coen Brothers offered a seemingly lighter slice of cinematic pie with 1998's The Big Lebowski. But, as with all the Coens' films, it's a far richer, more complex movie than it seems on first viewing — and, as Coen fans can attest, there are different moments that strike the viewer as funny on each successive visit. The voiceover narration at the film's beginning by Sam Elliott, accompanied by the song "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" as a tumbleweed rolls through modern-day Los Angeles, clues the viewer in to the whimsical, fable-like nature of the story to come. We first see Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) cruising a grocery store in his bathrobe and sandals as the Narrator describes him as not so much a hero but as "the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's The Dude in Los Angeles." After writing a check for 69 cents to buy a quart of half-and-half, Lebowski returns home to his crappy apartment and is assaulted by a pair of thugs who shove his head in a toilet and pee on his living room rug while demanding money. Determining that he's not the millionaire that they're looking for, they leave — leading The Dude to seek out the other Jeffrey Lebowski in town, in hopes of gaining restitution for his ruined carpet. After all, it "really tied the room together."

This being the Coens, that's just the start of a hilariously complicated plot, based very loosely on Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. The Dude really only cares about a few things — he loves bowling, he loves drinking White Russians, and he loves his uncomplicated slacker lifestyle. Encouraged by his loquacious, 'Nam-vet bowling buddy Walter (John Goodman) to seek out millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston) regarding the aforementioned rug, The Dude ends up taking a small job from the bigger Lebowski to deliver ransom money to kidnappers holding Lebowski's wife. In standard Coen Brothers storytelling style — from Blood Simple though Fargo and The Man Who Wasn't There — the tale then goes flying off into comic noir territory, as The Dude ends up as an amateur sleuth despite his own desire to just go bowling, tangling with "nihilist" kidnappers (led by Coen regular Peter Stormare), the sexpot Lebowski daughter who has an agenda of her own (Julianne Moore), a sophisticated pornographer named Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), and a slick, sleazy Mexican bowler (John Turturro) with a grudge.

With its free-wheeling, intricate and often downright silly plot, Lebowski is more masterful than it appears on first watching, and one with a number of iconic, memorable scenes. Drugged by Treehorn, The Dude has a fantastical dream that's an inspired, brilliant combination of plot points and The Dude's personal quirks — beginning with porn-movie credits as a bowling pin slides suggestively between two bowling balls, the sequence features a sometimes dancing, sometimes flying Bridges accepting a pair of silver-and-gold bowling shoes from Saddam Hussein, a Valkyrie-like Moore with golden bowling balls for breast plates, and red-clad nihilists chasing The Dude with giant scissors. The picture boasts a number of familiar actors — Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the Big Lebowski's assistant and Tara Reid is Lebowski's trophy wife, Bunny — but it does the most with the smallest amount of screen time for Steve Buscemi as Donnie. The third wheel on The Dude's bowling team, he rarely gets to complete a sentence as Walter continually shouts him down, telling him, "You're out of your league, Donnie! Shut the fuck up, Donnie!" Yet, when Donnie meets a surprising fate, it's actually quite poignant, given that we know virtually nothing about the character at all.

But that's the Coens for you — like the best noir authors and filmmakers, it's the smallest things in their films that often become the most important by the movie's end. You just have to take the ride and see where it ends up.

*          *          *

Universal's "Collector's Edition" DVD release of The Big Lebowski (via Focus Features) replaces an earlier, more bare-bones edition produced by PolyGram. The film begins with a newly shot introduction (4 min.) by Mortimer Young, head of "Forever Young Film Preservation," explaining that this sadly unappreciated film was lost to obscurity during the late 1990s' days of "synergy" in Hollywood and how, after finally tracking down a pristine print of the film that had been dubbed into Italian, his company reassembled the entire cast to re-dub their dialogue into English — with the exception of John Goodman, who was unavailable, so his work was covered by "master impressionist David Fry." The new, digitally remastered anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) is beautiful — extremely clean, with better color saturation and a crisper overall picture than on the previous release. The DD 5.1 audio (in English, French or Spanish with optional subtitles in English, Spanish or French) was good on the previous edition and it's equally good here — this isn't a film with much in the way of impressive effects, but there's a lot of kitschy-good '70s music and the mix, and dialogue is excellent.

Other than the improved picture quality and that hilarious introduction by Mortimer Young, there's little here to trumpet the DVD as a special "Collector's Edition" release — the "making-of" featurette (30 min.) is the same one offered on the PolyGram release, which at least offered the original teaser trailer. The trailer's not on this disc — there is, however, a nice gallery of photographs taken by Jeff Bridges during the shooting of the film, with handwritten notes on each. Along with cast and crew notes, that's it. Those who already own The Big Lebowski PolyGram release and are satisfied may just want to hang on to it and save themselves a new purchase. For the serious consumer, however, this Universal edition is also available in an "Achiever's Edition," which comes in a longer, bowling-lane designed box and includes eight cards featuring Bridges' photos, four character coasters, and a "collectible bowling towel" for over twice the price of the DVD à la carte.

— Dawn Taylor

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