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The Dude abides
A region 1 DVD review of THE BIG LEBOWSKI by Slarek
 

The Coen Brothers are one of the most original and imaginative film-making teams working in modern US cinema. Their stylistic, resolutely off-beat approach has given rise to a whole series of genre-busting works, from their debut film, Blood Simple, to widely acclaimed works such as Fargo and The Man Who Wasn't There. Their stature is so high that George Clooney, star of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, said in interview that he would happily have done a small walk-on part just to work once with the Brothers.

Playing as a slacker update of The Big Sleep, the The Big Lebowski centres around Jeff Lebowski, alias The Dude, an unemployed ageing hippie with a fondness for bowling and White Russians (that's the drink for those not in the know: one part Kahlúa, one part vodka poured over ice, one part milk – dangerously delicious), who is mistaken for a local millionaire with the same name by a pair of inept debt collectors, an accident that leads to him being hired by his rich namesake to help recover his kidnapped wife.

It was always going to be tricky to follow the huge critical success of Fargo, and when it appeared The Big Lebowski inevitably drew less enthusiastic plaudits from many quarters and was seen as a lesser Coen work. I beg to differ. For me this is one of the Coen’s most consistently enjoyable films, and while it does indeed lack the dark edge that has become one of their trademarks it more than makes up for it in the inventiveness of the writing and direction, the stream of delightfully oddball characters and situations and the sheer joy of the performances and characters. Jeff Bridges remains one of the most under-appreciated actors in modern American cinema, but despite a catalogue of fine performances, I would venture to suggest that this may be his best ever. Everything about his portrayal clicks, from his carefree delivery to his extraordinary use of posture and body language. Particularly memorable is early scene at the bowling alley when he is bending backwards, stertching in the pose of a crucified man, pondering on the fate of his soiled rug with his comrades, and a later ride home in the back of his namesake's limousine, which he completes half-dressed, feet up, beard stained with the White Russian he insists on carrying with him even as he exits the vehicle. Between them, the Coens and Bridges have created what time has confirmed as one of my favourite film characters ever.

Despite Bridges' brilliance here, it should in now way detract from the fact that the supporting cast are also a constant delight. John Goodman is hilarious as The Dude's bowling partner Walter – an opinionated Vietnam vet who is angry at everyone but whose adoption of the Jewish faith forbids him to work on Shabbas. When The Dude has to persuade him to do so he gets angry at that as well. Completing the bowling trio is Donny, played by Coen regular Steve Buscemi in a role that is almost the flipside of his mouthy, aggressive turn in Fargo, but none the less effective for it. The supporting cast are a delight, none more so than the always amazing Philip Seymour Hoffman, who does a scene-stealing turn as The Big Lebowski’s loyal personal assistant, the Coen version of Smithers, for the Simpsons fans out there.

Indeed, it is the characters that supply the film with most of its ample humour, The Dude’s hopeless incredulity, Walter's fury at just about everything, Donny's repeated confusion at conversations that are "out of his league," the pretentious pomposity of Julianne Moore’s 'vaginal' artist....every character registers and only a couple misfire (David Thewlis’s twittering idiot video artist is particularly notable). The dialogue is often very funny, but not always in the traditional, wisecrack manner – sometimes the delight comes in The Dude, Walter and Donny spending two minutes bumbling over words and each other’s attempts to form a sentence and saying absolutely nothing between them.

The film remains compulsive viewing throughout, however, by somehow making this directionless loafer the single most engaging character to hit the screen all year. Perhaps its greatest achievement is its suggestion that the slacker lifestyle is not only appealing, but the only logical choice for anyone with real class.

sound and vision

As the disk loads you are offered the choice between widescreen and full screen print you’re offered a choice of an widescreen or full screen print – not much of a choice, really. A nice touch is that if you do select the full screen version a big notice comes up to inform you that the picture has been modified to fit your screen – in other words, you made the wrong choice, mister. The main menu is rather eye-catching, being made up of mock-neon bowling logos with a grab from the film playing top centre. Other menus are similarly well designed, giving an attractive feel to the whole package.

The widescreen print of the film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 and looks great, a fine transfer from a very clean master. This is actually rather surprising considering that both this and the 4:3 print of the film are on the same side of the disk. The colour rendition and contrast range are bang on and the picture is sharp throughout, with artefacting making only a very occasional appearance on large areas of one colour.

The 5.1 track is never that aggressive but does well on the music and sound effects and the mix in general is very pleasing without being overly flashy.

extra features

Not a huge amount, but this is the key area of difference between the region 1 and the region 2 disks. The region 2 is pretty much a movie-only affair, but the region 1 also sports a 24 minute interview with the Coen Brothers about the making of the film. Interviews with the pair are rare and this is a valuable addition that throws up a slew of interesting facts, not least that The Dude is based on a real friend of theirs who they thought it would be fun to put into a Chandler-esque detective movie. This is shot on video and presented 4:3. Picture quality is fine.

Also featured are written biographies and filmographies for six of the key cast members and the two Coen brothers, French and Spanish subtitles and a rather odd teaser trailer.

summary

Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the most reliably imaginative film-makers currently working in the US. The Big Lebowski had to follow Fargo – which made a huge and immediate impact – and by contrast seems to have built its considerable cult following through time and repeated viewings. Almost everyone I know has a copy of the film on one format or other, and for me this region 1 disk is the best version available, if only for the rare Coen Brothers interview, which also makes it – and I know this is not saying much considering the lack or features on most of their other disks – one of the better featured Coen Brothers DVDs to date.

The Big Lebowski

USA 1998 .
98 mins
director .
Joel Coen
starring
Jeff Bridges
John Goodman
Steve Suscemi
Julianne Moore
John Tuturo

DVD details
region 1 .
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
4:3
sound
Dolby Ditital 5.1
languages
English
subtitles
English
French
Spanish
extras
Interview with the Coen Brothers
Trailer
distributor
Polygram
review posted
5 December 2003