The Big Lebowski
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The Big Lebowski

Sometimes cinematic history can be made with the least likely of premises. For example, before 1998 if someone told you the plot of a movie revolved around a stoned slacker, his ruined rug, Bowling, nihilists and mistaken identity you most likely would have thought any such film would bomb. Fortunately, Joel and Ethan Cohen had a greater scope of out of the box thinking. Not only is the Big Lebowski the kind of film that has become a cult classic much of it has become entwined in the core of our popular culture. Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is better known simply as The Dude, a man who lives for the uncomplicated pleasures in life, smoking pot, bowling and going through life in a wild shirt and bathrobe. One faithful day a group of men enter the Dude’s home and wind up ruining his favorite rug, ‘it pulled the room together’ muses the bewildered Dude. It turns out the thugs wherein the employ of pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara). There were looking for another Jeff Lebowski, called the Big Lebowski, filthy rich, with power and a beautiful young trophy wife. When the Dude discovers the mistaken identity, he bursts into the Big Lebowski’s lavish home demanding restitution for his soiled rug. Instead, the Dude is hired by the other Lebowski to save his wife Bunny (Tara Reid) from the clutches of kidnappers and deliver the ransom. The Dude enlists the aid of two of his best friends and bowling buddies, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Theodore Donald 'Donny' Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi). Although seemingly unprepared for life, in general, the misfit trio embark on a mission to save little Bunny Lebowski. Along the way, they meet some of the strangest characters every to be placed in the story line of any film. There is a group of German nihilist lead by Karl Hungus (Peter Stormare) and his bizarre second in command played by The Flea best know to most as a member of The Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Dude and his motley crew find opposition to their mission from unlikely sources, the Big Lebowski’s daughter from a previous marriage, Maude (Julianne Moore) resents having a step mother a fraction of her age. Maude is herself a strange character; she spends her time covering her body with paint and flinging herself on the canvas using a leather harness. If all this sounds confusing don’t feel bad, even the narrator (Sam Elliot) loses track of what is going on.

This is not the type of film that you have friends who attend film school over to watch and dissect each frame while snacking on wine and cheese. This is one of the ultimate beer and pizza flicks; you don’t so much watch it as experience it. You sit there and just let it flow over you. The characters are believable, we all know people like the Dude or Walter, but here the genius of the Cohen brothers is the exaggeration is just a little over the line, enough to make for a memorable, fun flick. This flick is a series of one comic episode after another. Combined with the offbeat characters this is a real ride. The Dude takes being a stoned slacker to an art form; he is the Yoda of letting life drift by. The Hippie movement died out a long time ago, but apparently, The Dude was not informed. Just goes on happy just to enjoy his bowling and relaxing at home. The plight he finds himself in may have plot holes big enough to drive an SUV but we the audience don’t care. Like the Dude, we are in it for the ride.

One of the many trademarks of a Cohen Brothers production is the casting. Here the use of Jeff Bridges as the Dude is brilliant. It is not so much that Bridges can channel a character like the Dude, he becomes the Dude. Reportedly all of the outrageous clothing worn by Bridges here came from his closet, not the wardrobe department. Bridges is perhaps the most versatile actor ever to grace the silver screen. He can play an alien, the President of the United States or quirky inventor with the same dedication as he does here. While so many actors look for films that show off a buff body Bridges is not afraid to be seen with a beer belly, ponytail and skinny legs. In contrast to the laid-back Dude, John Goodman gives his character Walter an explosive personality. Like so many men that returned from Viet Nam Walter just can’t let the past go. He is prone to fits of rage, really only calm when he has a bowling ball in his hand. I can think of films that Steve Buscemi was in that I didn’t like, but I can’t remember any performance of his that has fallen short. He is one of the most talented character actors around, with his lean stark look he falls naturally into the category of the shadier friend most of us know. Tara Reid nails it in her portrayal of Bunny Lebowski as the stereotypical drunken slut. Even if you are now thinking of the obvious punch line here as an actress, who possesses an innate talent. She does have talent. Get the movie ‘Body Shots’, and you will see she can act. Here Reid seems to spoof the tabloid view of her life with exceptionally comic results. It takes a lot of talent to play someone so clueless effectively.

The Cohen brothers are two of the most inventive people on the film scene today. Just look at their resume, Fargo, ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou,' ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ and ‘Raising Arizona.' All have one thing in common; they are twisted views of reality. One thing about this film is the ways they use their cameras. There is not a film school in existence that would teach how to shoot a scene from a bowling ball. There are not many directors today (Steven Spielberg the possible exception) that would include a full-blown Busby Berkeley production number in a film like this. The brothers’ real talent is the way there can get the audience to emotionally bond with the most flawed, strange characters possible.

Universal has been revisiting some of their previous DVD releases, and thankfully someone over there had the foresight to include the Big Lebowski. There are separate pan & scan and widescreen versions out but be true to the vision of the directors and get the widescreen. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video is crystal clear, free of defect and without any artifacts in sight. The color palette is true to life with the excellent demarcation between light and dark. The Dolby 5.1 presents a great channel balance. The tonal balance is well done over the full audio spectrum. The extras are almost as much fun as the feature. There is an introduction by Mortimer Young of ‘non-uptight’ film restoration with some interesting notes on the infamous ‘toe’ sequence. There is a making of featurette that provides an interview with the Cohen brothers. One nice touch for an extra is some on the set photos taken by Jeff Bridges. Order a pizza; pop opens a beer of making a few white Russians and take a wild ride with the Dude and his friends.

Posted: 10/19/05

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