Although it feels overlong at 70 minutes, “The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans” remains too lightly entertaining to really overstay its welcome. Not unlike Roger Nygard’s “Trekkies” (1999), which took a similarly nonjudgmental approach while gawking at “Star Trek” fanatics, helmer Eddie Chung’s lightweight doc invites auds to laugh with, not at, eager participants at annual conventions devoted to Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Big Lebowski,” aptly described here as “the first cult film of the Internet Age.” After limited theatrical exposure, “The Achievers” could be a steady-selling DVD and a popular souvenir item at future Lebowski Fests.
Doc charts the ongoing phenom back to 2002, when “Founding Dudes” Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt launched the inaugural Lebowski Fest at a bowling alley in their hometown of Louisville, Ky. Pleasantly surprised when 150 showed up to party, they continued to spread the good word through chatrooms and websites, to the point where thousands of like-minded fans now gather annually for trivia competitions, costume contests (in which flashily attired rivals cavort as concepts as well as characters from “The Big Lebowski”) and friendship-forging. And, yes, a great deal of bowling.
To fully appreciate “The Achievers,” it helps to know a lot about “The Big Lebowski,” an indescribably weird shaggy-dog comedy starring Jeff Bridges as Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski, a chronically stoned layabout improbably involved with kidnappers, nihilists and really, really competitive bowlers. Bridges comes off as a good sport here when he appears (and sings) at one of the fests, but even he seems nonplussed by the fanaticism of the fans around him: “It’s like a weird dream I’m having.”
Indie film producers’ rep Jeff Dowd — the real-life inspiration for the Dude character, and a frequent Lebowski Fest guest — theorizes that the gathering provides affirmation and fellowship for people who might otherwise feel like isolated oddballs. (Another participant kinda-sorta agrees: “Our generation craves ritual — and this scratches an itch.”) But USC film prof Peter Exline, whose youthful experiences partly inspired the “Lebowski” script, views the fest in simpler terms: “It’s just an excuse for a party. And they sell a lot of T-shirts.”
The Coen brothers are conspicuous by their absence during “The Achievers,” but, judging from the sheer number of clips from “Big Lebowski” on view, it’s reasonable to assume they didn’t disapprove of the project. On the other hand, while Bridges, John Goodman, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman and other “Lebowski” stars obviously approved their inclusion, Sam Elliott’s sage cowboy character from the original pic is nowhere to be seen among the excerpts.
Tech vales are adequate.