The Big Lebowski Case Study: How Does Plot Nullity Draw Exceptional Characters?


Everything and nothing - this is essentially the log line for the Coen Brothers’ cult classic The Big Lebowski (1998). Utilising the most indolent character, ‘The Dude’, as the catalyst for a plot that involves high stakes creates the perfect juxtaposition, and subsequently, the ideal blend for otiose comedy. The plot does have substance, however this remains more of a subsistent presence, rather than an overarching tool for entertainment. Joel even clarifies this in a statement in the DVD: ‘According to Joel Coen, they knew the plot would probably be a bit confounding to most viewers on the first watch, and they also knew that it probably wouldn’t matter. In a DVD extra for the film, he says, “The plot is sort of secondary to the other things that are sort of going on in the piece. I think that if people get a little confused it’s not necessarily going to get in the way of them enjoying the movie.” [1] The concept of a kidnapping (and ransom) has been prevalent in US cinema for decades before The Big Lebowski even emerged, partly as a recurring motif in Joel and Ethan Coen’s own work (Fargo, Raising Arizona). However, with their additional seasonings of class differences (The Dude vs. Lebowski), current conflicts (Vietnam War, Feminism), and inclusion of the culture of the time and place, they truly enrich The Big Lebowski in - what’s often considered - an overdone story arc.

Character comes first. Idiosyncrasies are at the heart of Lebowski - through exposition, conflict, but primarily the characters. Tonal differentiations in dialogue can be spotted in the screenplay without even needing to read the character names - a classic sign of strength in the narrative world. The narrative conditions a range of characters: a war veteran from Vietnam who always appears pro-violence; The Dude - a true pacifist; a disabled millionaire with an attractive, young wife; and an experimental artist with a taste for elaborate feminist agendas - we get a full spectrum of personalities. This is what drives the narrative. The plot becomes so irrelevent in stimulating intrigue or incentivising resolution that we solely focus on the characters, and moreso, how they react to plot beats and twists. This creates the perfect gewgaw narrative in aspects surrounding tension. Were the characters’ personalities different, the narrative would be different - there would be a far greater sense of everything at stake and the audience would be far more invested in the premise, because the characters would care. Therefore, we only care that the Dude gets his rug back - a situation which is resolved almost instantaneously, immediately preceding the ‘inciting incident’ stage. So why do we continue to watch? What analeptic antidote retains our fixation on the story? Nothingness. The group of German nihilist characters that flourish in comedic value in several scenes in the narrative essentially become a meta piece of symbolism that highlights one of the key themes of the film - nihilism.

Nihilism is often akin to the terms ‘pessimistic’ or ‘negative’, but this provides only one viewpoint of the concept - ‘Early in the nineteenth century, Friedrich Jacobi used the word to negatively characterize transcendental idealism’. [2] Instead, nihilism can in fact provide the characters with existentialist thoughts which, in turn, provide a sense of freedom surrounding the characters and their actions. This can be the basis of instrumental comedy - that, of which, is conceived to shift perspective. In this case, it’s used to drive narrative to its climax.

Nihilism is a concept often weaved into contemporary films, but one that’s been circulating for aeons. Samuel Beckett’s 1953 play Waiting for Godot is a primary influence on this ‘movement’, and one that siphoned the philosophical concept, and reimagined it into a workable narrative device. The film, featuring two protagonists, conveys a story of waiting for a man, Godot. However - Godot never turns up. In the exchange “Let's go." "We can't." "Why not?" "We're waiting for Godot.” [3] We repeatedly see this forced time capsule of a particular moment where the characters have absolutely nothing to do except wait, and incidentally - words overthrow actions. We, as the spectator, are forced to focus on what they say and the genuine human interaction of two parties. As a result, this allows for a verbal exposition of themes and ideas that the author (or respective auteur) wishes to convey. Although The Big Lebowski does have actions - these don’t amount to creating a narrative that’s cared about, but characters we care about. The nihilism prevails in the opening dialogue from our unreliable narrator - ‘The Stranger’: “I only mention it because sometimes there's a man... I won't say a hero, 'cause, what's a hero? Sometimes, there's a man. And I'm talkin' about the Dude here - the Dude from Los Angeles. Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.”. [4] The dialogue dithers and repeats, the way humans would in a real conversation. He deliberates his words with imperfections - imitating life but also, through subtext, establishing the truth that perhaps this story has no intentional outcome in its presentation, other than to draw awareness to the aforementioned idea of nihilism - where we, incidentally, draw the comedy as well.

Syd Field states in Screenplay: The Foundations of Story - ‘The entire class joined in creating a character, and out of the character came the idea for a story.’ [5] We, as humans, are so meticulously drawn into people and their lives - regardless of whether or not we know them. Oftentimes we are interested in those who we wouldn’t want to be associated with in everyday life, or connected to - only to observe, from a distance with thorough fascination. In the book Directing, Mick Hurbis-Cherrier and Michael Rabiger frequently coin the term ‘Concerned Observer’ [6], and state the importance of this throughout the entire production process of a film. These people are the bohemians, yet also those less fortunate; those who stand out in society. The drunk man on the train in the middle of the day, the schizophrenic woman in the street - despite their unfortunate circumstances, they provide us with human connection and genuine thought, to understand their condition and form possible stories of where they’ve come from and where they’re going - if anywhere. This establishes our grounds for enticing characters. The Dude is lazy and his overall want is to just be left alone - everyone can relate to this to some degree. Therefore, you formulate a structure of this exceptionally relatable character to propel them into a world that breaks them down and reveals their mannerisms and own personal touches in reactions to a situation. You can be lazy, yet want to achieve in life - humans are far too complex for single-word descriptions and adjectives, and so, this creates an air of originality to a story. Conflict is at the heart of this. The drunk man on the train - is he conflicting with himself morally? Does the conflict relate to a relationship or argument? The schizophrenic woman - what severe state is her psychological conflict with herself? The character is a fixed component of the story, the conflict provides a variable to create character development. Wes Anderson compressed this as ‘There's no story if there isn't some conflict. The memorable things are usually not how pulled together everybody is.’ The idea that Joel and Ethan Coen brought together a true pacifist and a war enthusiast, as well as creating a dysfunctional bond between the two allows for the conflict to naturally form itself. The Coen Brothers did nothing in particular to nullify the plot intentionally - The Dude still tries to save Lebowski’s wife from her kidnappers - yet this dialogue and the conversational moments keep us drawn. These moments create the escapist components within the film and essentially, create escapism within the plot itself, and as such, this brings out those exceptional characters we discuss decades, and even generations later.