Under the Radar

Lebowski Revisited

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The Big Lebowski has finally come out on Blu-ray. The movie stars Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore and Steve Buscemi in a convoluted detective tale about bowling, mistaken identity, fake kidnappers and a damaged rug.

You might say this movie had two lives. Its first was as Joel & Ethan Coen's followup to the Oscar-winning Fargo. That 1998 got so-so reviews from both critics and Coen brothers fans, flopped at the box office and didn't get nominated for anything. The Coen brothers bounced back and have since enjoyed both critical and commercial success with a string of movies that include 2008 Best Picture No Country for Old Men, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and last year's remake of True Grit.

The Big Lebowski's second life has come on home video and in midnight movie showings. It's been adopted by a generation of young movie fans who've been inspired to throw a series of Lebowski Fest conventions where devotees dress up like characters from the movie and meet up in bowling alleys.

I'm not a Lebowski achiever myself. I saw the movie in the theater in 1998 when I was working on an album with Aimee Mann for Geffen Records and immediately forgot about it. I think I was mostly disappointed that Aimee's role in the movie (as one of the Nihilist kidnapper's toeless girlfriend) was at best a cameo, plus all her lines were in German. Once the movie tanked, there was no way I could convince anyone at the label that a tiny role in a failed Coen brothers picture was going to make it easier to market an album that no one really wanted to release anyway. (For the record, the album that Geffen didn't want to release turned out to be the songs used in Magnolia, which got an Oscar nomination for Aimee, and on her Bachelor No. 2 CD. They were wrong)

So even though I'm a big fan of the Coens' work (favorites: No Country for Old Men & Miller's Crossing, also a big fan of Burn After Reading, a movie just as weird as Lebowski but minus the cult fans), I pretty much forgot about The Big Lebowski until I watched the new Blu-ray release.

On the technical side, the Blu-ray transfer looks incredible. A lot of 1080p transfers of old movies make the characters look like paper-doll cutouts on your TV, but this transfer has none of that overly-digital effect. Roger Deakins' cinematography is exceptional and the bowling action scenes look especially good. While this is the movie's first release on Blu-ray, it was briefly available on HD-DVD in 2007 and I can't figure out if this is a brand-new transfer or if this high-def version is ported over from the other release. You'll have to do your own research on that. There are more than a few ranting home theatre message boards that should have a complete breakdown available soon.

Less incredible are the extras. Joel & Ethan Coen still don't offer a commentary track and almost everything is recycled from earlier DVD releases. The only time the brothers appear in the extras is in a vintage "Making of" documentary that looks like it was transferred off an original VHS tape. There's a documentary about Lebowski Fest, a Jeff Bridges photo book, Interactive Map, 10th Anniversary interviews from 2008 and a few other things fans will have seen before.

What's new? The disk comes packaged in a hardcover book that features an interview with Jeff Dowd, the L.A. guy who's been named as the inspiration for Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski and has a reproduction of The Dude's replacement rug as the back cover. Universal's U-Control Blu-ray features include a Mark It, Dude onscreen counter that tallies up every time a character drops an F-bomb or says "dude," "man" or "Lebowski." There's a Scene Companion that gives you direct access to interviews about a given moment in the scene if you're too lazy to watch the extras and a music feature that instantly identifies the songs used on the soundtrack if you're too impatient to wait for the credits or too lazy to use Wikipedia.

There's also a digital copy that gives you a code and the option to download your copy from Amazon, Vudu or iTunes. The iTunes version worked fine but it doesn't look that great after you've watched the Blu-ray.

So what did I learn when watching the movie again for the first time after thirteen years?

The overwhelming first impression is that Thomas Pynchon must be a huge Lebowski fan. His 2009 novel Inherent Vice is a tribute to the same Raymond Chandler detective novels that inspired the Coen Brothers and the movie has a kind of weed-inspired paranoia that Pynchon seems to have really inspired Pynchon, who amps it up in the character of the low-rent L.A. detective who stars in his novel. Magnolia director Paul Thomas Anderson is supposedly making a movie of Inherent Vice that will star Robert Downey, Jr. We'll have to see how much Lebowski influence shows up in that film.

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Second impression is that the Coens spent a lot of time watching The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman's subversive 70s take on the L.A. noir that starred Elliot Gould as post-Watergate version of Phillip Marlowe. Since Goodbye is one of the most overlooked classics in a decade full of great films, that movie is a great place to start when you're making your own film.

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John Goodman's Walter Sobchak would definitely attribute his frequent outbursts to post-Vietnam PTSD, since the character interprets every scenario through the prism of his war experiences. While it's Jeff Bridges' portrayal of Dude that seems to have inspired the cult, it's his interactions with Goodman's Walter and Steve Buscemi's Donny that give the movie its biggest laughs. Julianne Moore's absurd trust-fund kid with a pretentious made-up accent and Ben Gazzara performance a sleazebag pornographer Jackie Treehorn are also hilarious.

Two things that put me off the first time and still don't make much sense are the narrator (a good performance by Sam Elliott, but what does the character add to the movie?) and the dream sequences. One trippy hallucination might have been okay but two just seem like a distraction when you really just want to see Walter yell at Donny a few more times.

So, how does The Big Lebowski stack up against the other Coen comedies? It's still not as good as Raising Arizona but it's probably a little better than O Brother, Where Art Thou? I still think I like Burn After Reading better, but I'm sure that puts me in a small minority and might be an opinion best kept to myself down at the rock club or bowling alley.

If you don't have a Blu-ray player yourself, you can rent a streaming version from Amazon, iTunes or Vudu. Lebowski will be streaming on Netflix starting in October. The Long Goodbye is a streaming rental from the same places and you can watch it on Netflix starting in September.

 

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