The fabulous movie year of 1998 was a watershed one for me; it represented the beginning of a movement towards tonally darker and grittier films that started in 1997 (GOOD WILL HUNTING and DONNIE BRASCO) and ramped up after 9/11 just four years later. It’s also an important year for me because it represented my last straw with the MPAS, the body responsible for the Oscar Awards process. In this world, Joel and Ethan Coen may as well have been Persona Non-grata; a duo whose accomplishments were largely written off to luck with FARGO in 1996, even though you couldn’t find many better directors today. I could count on one hand the number of directors who might have exceeded their body of work, which at that time included BARTON FINK, RAISING ARIZONA, and BLOOD SIMPLE. When nominations were read that year, their newest release THE BIG LEBOWSKI earned exactly none. Sure, the film was a commercial and critical flop, but MPAS’ lack of vision sealed the deal for me. Since then, LEBOWSKI has become not only a must for Coen fans, but appears on most Top 20 lists for the film enthusiast. Its Blu-ray re-re-release — this time in the ‘Iconic Moments’ SteelBook — reminds just how wonderful the film is, while we lament another dropped opportunity for Universal to introduce its library classics in the upgraded case.
For me personally, I think the allure of THE BIG LEBOWSKI is the many moments our favorite stoner The Dude (Jeff Bridges) gets into with his gun-toting ex-Vietnam friend Walter (John Goodman) as both try to clear Lebowski’s name. Along the way, they encounter the sexual deviant Maude (Julianne Moore), The Dude’s nemesis Jesus Quintana (John Turturro), the German nilhilists (led by Peter Stormare) and the enigmatic The Stranger (Sam Elliot). Each of these characters could command their own film these days (I’d love to Jesus return, even in a short), as the moment they arrive their characters are fully fleshed out. There’s Jesus’ licking of the bowling ball, The Stranger’s disdain for cussing, and Maude sexually adventurous means of painting. Mix into this a directing style that will one minute feature big dance scenes and dreamy sexual fantasies alongside great dialogue about life or just being The Dude. Then there’s the third-wheel Donny (Steve Buscemi) whose facial features are simply priceless as Walter brandishes a gun or The Dude clashes with Jesus. Just like a typical Coen Brothers’ production, the mood is convoluted but so well shot, thanks this time to Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who in my opinion has to be the best in the profession.
And yet the story — centered so much around a bowling alley — never shows Bridges actually throwing a bowling ball. The tournament doesn’t even play central to the plot; so, why do so many fans find themselves wanting to visit their local lanes after watching this? Perhaps it’s just like SWINGERS, in that you might not learn how to Swing dance during the movie, but you’ll want to find yourself afterwards at a local dive bar listening to Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr (my mother would kill me if I equated listening to Dean Martin with having a good time). I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose untimely death in 2013 makes me appreciate every role he took, even the smaller one here.
It’s best to take on THE BIG LEBOWSKI as its main character takes on life, one skit and dramatic turn as it arrives. People tend to take very different impressions of what the film means to them — as should be done when a classic of cinema arrives. That wasn’t the case in 1998 when the film tanked in every way possible, losing money and dinging the growing credibility of the Coens. So why the change? Like I said, 1998 kicked the new age of film into high gear, where tongue-and-cheek family comedies like PARENTHOOD or FOOLS RUSH IN were slowly being replaced with a darker outlook on life and history. You can’t have a year that includes ELIZABETH or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and think nothing will change in Hollywood because of it. For the Coens, it meant their particular brand of comedy — whether the general population loves it or not — was ready for wider acceptance. Does anyone these days even speak of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE as an enduring cultural legacy? Hardly. But, their sweeps at The Oscars kept the revolution from gaining steam, if only for a brief period.
Some might claim that THE BIG LEBOWSKI still doesn’t have the widespread appeal of FARGO or other similar films. Bull — what other similar property will you find entire conventions devoted to it? Its odd assortment of characters and twisty-turn script is now the blueprint for lesser television and film comedies by people just hoping to become the next Coen Brothers. My suggestion: get in line, and while you wait, watch THE BIG LEBOWSKI on one of the many settings contained within the great Supplements which I cover below. It’s an instant classic and one that today’s directors try — usually in vain — to reconstruct.
Universal’s ‘Iconic Moments’ release of THE BIG LEBOWSKI features the same VC-1 encode that arrived with 2011’s Limited Edition Digibook. One would think the VC-1 release would be problematic given its near bastard title against the standard MPEG4 encodes of recent transfers. Yet the film is surprisingly pretty, sporting bright colors from Dude’s yellow bowling jacket to the red in Bunny’s convertible and the great retro bowling alley. Skintones are lifelike and show off a nice level of detail, from the individual hairs in Dude’s goatee to Maude’s red sultry wig and other body parts. Sharpness — especially on the cliff shot near the end — is incredibly clear, showing off individual stones around the cliff. Turturro’s outlandish pink jumpsuit looks great here, adding to the charm and eccentricity of his role. There’s a fine line which studios have to walk regarding the release of their older library titles; THE BIG LEBOWSKI doesn’t suffer from any issues, but at the same time doesn’t have the pop of modern titles shot in digital. Some have complained that this reality has somehow tainted the Blu-ray transfer, citing issues with aliasing along with crush in nighttime scenes, but I couldn’t find them. I wonder if those issues had been corrected in future releases, but I found THE BIG LEBOWSKI on Blu-ray to be ready and raring for a good time.
Here again, the ‘Iconic Moments’ release appears to offer the 2011 DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio transfer, all with the same results. It’s a solid but not impressive lossless track, but the result is clear and concise. A dialogue-heavy film like this is hard to judge because it can be so quiet, but in this case all speakers get together to give us a fairly immersive experience. The channel sports clear dialogue that doesn’t require you play The Remote Game between some of the louder scenes, allowing the other speakers a chance to take on smaller roles with better effect. The forwards sport a typical mix of sound effects and music, with some dialogue coming through but taking a passive third spot in doing so. The rears do their bit by immersing us in occasional moments and the typical background noise of the bowling alley and the diner. The only time which the LFE is allowed to strut its thumping self is during the musical sequences and the sporadic ‘action’ sequences of Dude’s growing list of enemies. Can there be more immersion here? Sure, but what we get is a good track that should survive the 4K invasion without winning any awards.
Perhaps the best part of Universal’s release is their decision to keep all of the 2011 supplements, which are the deepest of the four I’ve reviewed. The only problem here is the lack of commentary track, but there’s so much here that it’s almost acceptable (almost) that it’s missing. While some supplements were recorded new for the 2011 release, everything from the original DVD has been left in SD:
- Worthy Adversaries: What’s My Line Trivia. This is an odd but enjoyable feature that allows the viewer to complete various lines from the film. The first one takes awhile to appear, but once you start to play, you’ll be given a choice of four lines to choose from. Choose right, and The Dude gives you a thumbs up.
- Exclusive Introduction (4:40): This fake introduction by a film restorer named Mortimer Young is a perfect way to begin the movie, with the Coen Brothers’ unique blend of humor on display.
- The Dude’s Life (10:08): Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, John Goodman, and John Turturro come back to discuss their memories of shooting the film.
- The Dude Abides – The Big Lebowski Ten Years Later (10:27): This new featurette gathers the actors to discuss the film’s impact since its release. There’s a nice section here focusing on why the Coen Brothers work so well together.
- The Making of The Big Lebowski (SD; 24:35): This is an enjoyable yet unremarkable piece which appeared on the DVD release. I’d definitely watch this one before catching the newer HD featurettes, as it provides the basic framework for the film soon after its release.
- Jeff Bridges Photo Book (17:30): This is a really interesting and great looking piece centering around the book of photos Bridges took and then presented to the cast after the film had wrapped. Bridges is on hand to discuss the photos, which are really amazing looking.
- The Lebowski Fest: An Achiever’s Story (SD, 13:53) is taken from a portion of the documentary THE ACHIEVERS, and features portions from The Lebowski Festival, a Comic-Con style gathering of super fans of the movie. At the time of this posting, the documentary is available on Netflix streaming.
- Flying Carpets and Bowling Pin Dreams: The Dream Sequences of The Dude (4:20) focuses on two of my favorite sequences from the film: the dream and dance sequences. Some have questioned its appearance in the film, but I personally love it.
- Interactive Map: Another of the more unique parts of the supplements lies here. Basically, you can tour the various locations where LEBOWSKI was shot, including the famous bowling alley which is sadly no longer there. There’s a brief clip for each location.
- Photo Gallery (17:30): Jeff Bridges guides us through the photo book he created during the shooting of the film. It’s a nice collection and hearing adds a new layer to the experience of making such a fun film.
- Photo Galley (SD, 3:25): These are B/W images taken from Jeff Bridge’s book and other sources during the shoot.
- My Scenes: Got a favorite scene? This feature lets you bookmark it so you can return later to laugh or quote it, so I expect you to be using this feature quite often.
- U-Control: Universal does its best to add to the experience of THE BIG LEBOWSKI with this series of three features. Scene Companion offers a PIP commentary while the film plays, which includes crew and commentaries and various behind the scenes footage. Mark it Dude is another fun piece that ticks off the number of profanities and other words uttered throughout the film. It takes some getting used to, but it’s another way to experience what’s nearly become a worldwide sensation. The Music of The Big Lebowski pops up with songs titles used throughout.
- BD-Live and pocketBLU: Never a very reliable experience, the BD-Live works on the main menu but not during the film. Your best bet is click the OFF button on the Ticker to disable it entire. The same recommendation goes for the pocketBLU.
Universal’s ‘Iconic Moments’ features a SteelBook cover rather than the generic eco-Amaray or Digibook. Unfortunately, it’s nothing special as (once again) there is no interior artwork. I own the Digibook and absolutely recommend that one. It’s a far superior experience than the SteelBook, and contains beautiful color pages and nice interior artwork. That one contains all of the supplements above and represents a far better value in my opinion.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI represents a typical Hollywood blunder, that of marketing. Perhaps people weren’t ready for such a unique film, but in the same year as FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, we got Oscar wins for a film that frankly never deserved to be there. No one remembers SHAKESPEARE, but THE BIG LEBOWSKI endures to this day. Sadly, the ‘Iconic Moments’ release won’t remain in anyone’s mind for long, as its lack of interior artwork makes a stronger case to purchase the Digibook instead. It’s clear that the U.S. SteelBook market is growing and could prosper for awhile; but we fans deserve better than Universal’s ‘Iconic Moments,’ hence my lower overall score as this article is based mostly on the packaging. It’s a rare home misfire for a studio that’s been such a great leader over the years.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI is rated R for pervasive strong language, drug content, sexuality and brief violence and has a runtime of 117 minutes.