The Big Lebowski (20th Anniversary) Limited Edition Gift Set Review: The Dude and This Set Abide

For this anniversary, Universal Studios has released the Coen Brothers' comedy in glorious 4K.
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In the late 1990s, during my college years, I went to the movies every weekend.  I saw pretty much every movie that came to my town that looked remotely interesting and even a few that didn’t. In the spring of 1998, I saw Fargo.  It was a blind watch, I’d never heard of it before I entered the theater.  I knew of the Coen Brothers, or at least I’d seen Raising Arizona before.  Think I even had a copy of it on VHS which I bought on the cheap.  But it wasn’t yet a favorite.  Fargo was just another movie to watch on a weekend without anything else interesting out.

I loved it.  It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.  It was dark and thrilling.  It was impeccably put together and beautifully shot.  It was written to perfection and brilliantly acted.  And it was funny.  Hilariously funny.  So funny that when I later saw it listed as a thriller I thought they spelled "comedy" wrong.  I saw it two more times in the theater, dragging different friends along to show them how awesome it was.

I became an instant fan of the Coens.  I wore out my copy of Raising Arizona.  I watched and loved Miller’s Crossing, Blood Simple, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Barton Fink (well, that one took me a few viewings to love).  I joined alt.movies.coen-brothers and chatted with other Coen Brothers fans.  When The Big Lebowski was announced, I was thrilled.  It was said to be another wacky comedy in the vein of Raising Arizona.  I cried with anticipation.  Finally, it came out and I was first in line.

I kind of hated it.  That’s too strong a word, I liked it in parts.  It was well shot and had that Coen Brothers style.  It had some funny parts.  I remember laughing some.  But it wasn’t what I expected.  It wasn’t Raising Arizona, Part II.  It didn’t make much sense.  It was a mystery without a solution. There were a lot of characters, many of which had hardly any screen time, and whose purpose was vague.  Its plotting was labyrinth with many strands that didn’t seem to go anywhere.  Its ending was confusing.

"Disappointed" is the word.  But then I watched it again.  And again after that.  It grew on me.  None of this was fast; it took me a couple of years to appreciate it.  I had to watch some more films to realize the Coens never make the same sort of film twice, they constantly change and play with genre.  I had to read some Raymond Chandler, whose plots are often complicated and who clearly influenced the film a great deal.  Now it's one of my favorite comedies.  It's so easily watchable and instantly quotable.  It's become a huge cult film with fans creating clubs, countless fanzines and webpages, and there is even a Day of the Dude (March 6) where fans gather to celebrate the film. They’ve made it a religion and you can even get ordained as a dudeist priest.

For those of you who aren’t ordained in the ministry of The Dude or just haven’t seen the movie, The Big Lebowski follows one Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), an unemployed slacker who spends his days drinking White Russians and smoking J’s and his evenings in an local bowling league with his two buddies. There’s Walter (John Goodman), a high-strung Vietnam vet and Donny (Steve Buscemi), a meek little man who hardly gets in three sentences the whole movie (and is promptly told by Walter to "shut the f-up" every time).  He is mistaken for a much older, much more wealthy, and much more rotund man also named Jeffrey Lebowski whose younger, beautiful “token” wife Bunny (Tara Reid) owes money to a known pornographer (Ben Gazzara).  A group of young thugs rough The Dude up looking for the money before realizing a rich millionaire isn’t likely to live in a run-down flat nor wear Bermuda shorts and a bathrobe.  They piss on his rug for their trouble.

Later, when Bunny is possibly kidnapped, the “Big” Lebowski hires The Dude to be the drop man for the ransom money.  When this goes horribly wrong, The Dude tries to solve the case.  The plot gets even more complicated in the most Raymond Chandler of ways from there.  The plot is hardly the point.  The mystery doesn’t matter.  The movie is all about style and attitude, characters and comedy.  If you are like me and didn’t “get it” on your first try, go back and watch it again.  Don’t try to figure out what’s happening just enjoy the ride.  Or not.  That might just be my opinion, man.

For its 20th anniversary, Universal Pictures has upgraded The Big Lebowski to 4K.  It looks amazing.  It offers incredibly fine detail.  You can see every thread in The Dude’s robe, every scuff on his bowling ball, every drop of White Russian in his scraggly beard. Shot by the incomparable Roger Deakins, the film has always had an incredible visual resonance, but it's never looked better on home video.  Audio has been upgraded to DTS:X.  The film’s audio palette isn’t ever going to give your surround sound system a work out, but it's never sounded better. You’ll really feel like your sitting beside them in the bowling alley and those crazy dream sequences really feel trippy.

The 4K disk doesn’t contain any extras, but this set also comes with the previously issued Limited Edition Blu-ray (and a digital copy) which does contain numerous extras.  These include a ten-year retrospective with interviews of Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore and Steve Buscemi.  Plus an interactive map, Jeff Bridge’s photo book, and several making-of features.  For those of you like collective knick knacks (myself included), this gift set comes with a cute little bowling ball pencil holder, a polishing cloth that looks like The Dude’s rug, and a tiny replica of his sweater that raps nicely around the movie’s case.

The Big Lebowski is one of the great comedies of the last two decades.  Being made by the Coen Brothers, it is also an incredibly all-around, well-made film.  This new 4K disk looks and sounds amazing.  If you are into that whole ultra HD thing, then absolutely get this.  But if you aren’t and already have the Blu-ray release, then you aren’t getting any new extras here.  Whether it's worth it for the plastic objects is up to you. 

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