There truly aren't that many movies that I have on heavy rotation over the years. We have "Casablanca", "Citizen Kane", "Apocalypse Now", the television series "The Sopranos". For many reasons "The Big Lebowski" is up there also, possibly more than any of the others. The movie reminds me of a record that you just play over and over and you never really get sick of it, and you are always hearing new things. I swear every time I put in "The Big Lebowski," I find something new to laugh at, and I learn more about the characters every time. And now I have it in its best version yet on HD-DVD, and let me tell you it is an event to celebrate.
With a new opening by the fictitious Mortimer Young (in a mockumentary fashion), we are reminded in a hilarious and bizarre fashion that can only be pulled off by Joel and Ethan Coen (aka the Coen Brothers) of the painstaking remastering process it took to bring this version to us, a film known as "Marijuana Man" in some cultures (the narrator suggests). Now, the real film opens, and the camera follows tumbleweed blowing in the wind through the familiar streets of Los Angeles, as "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds" plays in the background perfectly narrated in baffled cowboy bemusement and semi-stupefied amazement by The Stranger (Sam Elliot). We also meet our anti hero, The Dude, a.k.a. Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges, in perhaps his most famous role). He is strolling along the supermarket (as 'Tumblin' Tumbleweeds fades into a muzak version of itself) in his trademark bathrobe and thrift store pants, he picks out the right brand of creamer for his White Russians (his favorite drink) and pays for it with a check (presumably bad), for $0.69, half paying attention to the news in the background of ex-president George H.W. Bush stating, "This aggression will not stand," in reference to Operation Desert Storm (coincidentally the check is dated Sept.11, 1991).
What an introduction. And with the narration, it is almost like a nature documentary about a lazy, stoned L.A. slacker. We follow The Dude home (as Tumblin' Tumbleweeds fades back to its original version) and he is accosted by slacker hoodlums who demand money. It becomes painfully obvious that they have found the wrong man with the unfortunate same name as their intended target; still they piss on his rug and call him a loser. Even after this humiliating defeat, The Dude conjures the last words, "At least I'm housebroken!" And now we have one of my favorite credit sequences ever, a slow motion montage of bowlers at the alley practicing their sport as Bob Dylan sings "The Man In Me".
At the bowling alley we meet two of The Dude's closest allies, Donny Kerabatsos (played brilliantly Steve Buscemi) and Walter Sobchak (John Goodman). Donny is a low key and co-dependant type who is under constant assault by Walter, a severely neurotic Vietnam vet who seems constantly on edge and about to explode. And does. He takes his bowling very personally, and when the slightest hint of unfairness comes into the story, he is the type to brandish a gun and make sure the score is settled his way. These three characters and their brilliantly delivered and well written camaraderie is really the center piece of the whole film, the lines are delivered so naturally, and the humor is in the small details. These unlikely friends actually create some seriously endearing chemistry and the conversations they have are some of the most brilliant comedy scenes. That is truly the appeal of this movie, the performances are so dead on. The plot obviously gets far more complex, and The Dude, in his befuddled (but successful) attempt to retrieve his rug that "really tied the room together", becomes involved in some serious business.
Upon visiting the Lebowski mansion, we are greeted by even more fantastic characters like "The Big Lebowski" (David Huddleston) and his assistant (played with maniacal glee by the excellent Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman). It becomes apparent that Jeff Lebowski, as poor and drug-addled as he may seem, may have his whole reality structure in a safer zone than some other L.A. fringe types and he is eventually thrown into a strange Raymond Chandler type mystery that becomes about as complex as they get. The strange twist here is that our 'hero' is actually someone who has a roach of good dope in one hand and a White Russian in the other, and the awkward occurrences that take place as he tries to keep his cool are so funny, I won't begin to describe. I always lose it when they throw the marmot in the tub, though. I mean, there you are, with candles surrounding you as you soak in the tub listening to the soothing 'Sounds of the Whale' cassette, and these Nihilists come in and throw a weasel-type rodent in your tub. That is just plain wrong. And really the plot isn't all that important here, it's truly a film about performances, and all of them stand out.
Let me not forget to mention Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) and of course (in a legendary small role) John Turturro as Jesus Quintana. If you already love the Coen Brothers' flair and brilliance, then this film is a given, as I find it to be their finest achievement. If not, give this strange and quirky work of art a chance and eventually it will grow on you. The performances are unforgettable and the directing is top notch and you may know about its iconic status as a cult comedy classic, either way, I'm biased, because I just love the hell out of it.
It arrives on HD-DVD in pristine condition and looks better than it ever has, and that is saying a lot, because I was always somewhat disappointed by the previous versions. The transfer is very film-like. It is very detailed and better than the film has ever looked. I am very happy with the transfer, but don't expect "Flyboys" or "The Searchers", we have an excellent and very pleasing image that fills the screen at 1.85:1. If you are a fan, you should simply rush out and buy it. If not, it isn't demo material, it's "The Big Lebowski," and The Dude listens to bowling tournaments on a cassette Walk Man, so you should consider yourselves lucky!
In the sound department, no complaints whatsoever, better than it ever has sounded in the past and the trippy music sequences look and sound very good!
As for special features, you may want a little more in that department, it is simply a porting over of the same things from the last DVD release. Me, I just want the movie, that is more than enough for me. But for those of you who crave more, we have the aforementioned Special Introduction (which is a trip and adds to the movie, just because it makes fun of special feature in a way, and I think that is cool), some really neat photo galleries from Jeff Bridges' private stock (all black and white slideshow and done with some really cool German Nihilist music in the background) and we also have a making of documentary that is the same from all previous releases and is just as good as it always was, very informative and fun to watch, and best of all it doesn't even come close to revealing the magic that came together after a few months of filming.
How exciting to have one of my favorite films in this format. Thanks, Universal. If I were stranded on a desert island and could only have five movies, this one would make the list.