Big Lebowski, The (1998): Narrative Structure (Detailed Plot)

The Big Lebowski is arguably Joel and Ethan Coen’s least disciplined, most zany, most calculated and deliberately plotted picture (in the name of randomness)

It claims the largest ensemble to be seen in their films, boasting two dozen characters that are played by the best actors of the late 1990s, most of whom associated with the New American Independent Cinema.

It is a deliberately playful, post-modernist text, which at once deconstructs classic zany screwball comedies of the Depression era, while constructing an “original” plot that stands totally on its own.


The Big Lebowski makes reference to numerous (older) movies, as well as their own work; some plot elements (kidnapping, mistaken identity) “borrow” from their previous film, the Oscar winning Fargo (1996).

Jewish Motifs:

References to Sabbath (Shabbas).


Los Angeles, early 1990s.

Plot (Scene by Scene):

Though it does not make much sense, there’s plenty of plot in The Big Lebowski, especially by standards of the other pictures of the Coen brothers.

The tale begins, when the protagonist, Slacker Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, is assaulted in his home by two enforcers for porn kingpin Jackie Treehorn.

It turns out Treehorn is owed money by the wife of a different guy named Jeffrey Lebowski.

One of the goons urinates on the Dude’s favorite rug before they realize they have the wrong man and leave.

Advised by his bowling partners, Vietnam veteran Walter Sobchak and Donny Kerabatsos, the Dude visits wealthy philanthropist Jeffrey (“Big”) Lebowski, demanding compensation for the rug.

The Big refuses, but the Dude tricks his assistant Brandt into letting him take a similar rug from the mansion.

Outside he meets Bunny, Big’s trophy wife, and her German nihilist friend Uli.

Bunny is kidnapped and Big hires The Dude to deliver the requested ransom money, one million dollars.

That night, a different pair of thugs accost the Dude, taking his replacement rug on behalf of Big’s daughter Maude (Julianne Moore), who has a sentimental attachment to it.

The kidnappers arrange to collect the ransom.

Convinced that Bunny “kidnapped herself,” Walter concocts a scheme to keep the ransom money by substituting it with a briefcase full of his dirty laundry.

Things do not go entirely according to Walter’s plan, to say the least, and the kidnappers leave with Walter’s laundry.

Walter and The Dude return to the bowling alley, leaving the ransom money in the trunk of his car. While the bowlers play, the car is stolen from the parking lot.

Revealing Bunny is one of Treehorn’s actresses and lovers, Maude concedes that Bunny had staged her own abduction and asks for the Dude’s help to recover the money, which her father illegally withdrew from the family’s foundation.

The Dude is separately confronted for his failure to deliver the ransom by both Big and a trio of German nihilists who identify themselves as the kidnappers. Maude is then able to confirm that the Germans are Bunny’s friends.

Missing Suitcase

The Dude’s car, now without the desirable briefcase, is recovered by the police.

Driving home after a meeting with Maude, the Dude finds homework stuffed down in the seat, signed by “Larry Sellers.”

Walter and the Dude confront Larry at his father’s home, interrogating him about the missing briefcase.

Mistaken Cars

When he is unresponsive, Walter bashes a new red sports car parked outside, in a nice suburban street, thinking that the teen had used the money to buy it.

The car’s actual owner, a neighbor, then appears and retaliates by bashing the Dude’s car, mistaking it for Walter’s.

The Dude returns home, where he finds Maude wearing only a robe. They have sex, which begins with her standing naked, looking down on him; he’s on the floor.

The actual sex is not shown, but chances are that Muade was the one in control.

In the next scene, still in bed, lying next to each other, Maude confesses to the Dude that her father has no money of his own. The family fortune belonged to her late mother, who had left him none.

This is the final piece of information that The Dude needs in order to work out the entire scheme. After Bunny left town, her nihilist friends faked her kidnapping to extort money from her husband.

Big withdrew the ransom from the family trust but he kept it for himself, not caring what happened to his wife. Instead, he gave the Dude a briefcase containing phone books.

In a final confrontation in a parking lot outside of the bowling alley, the nihilists set the Dude’s car on fire, and demand the ransom money.

Walter violently fends them off, and in the fight, he bites the ear of one nihilist, which is then seen flying off into theĀ  night.

However, sadly, during the scuffle, Donny dies from a heart attack.

The ashes of the deceased are put in an ern, which is a red Folgers Coffee can. Before scattering Donny’s ashes from a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Walter delivers a eulogy that turns into a diatribe about the Vietnam War.

While scattering the ashes, an updraft blows them back over himself and the Dude. The Dude chastises Walter for his eulogy and Walter apologizes.

In the last scene, the two men go bowling.

They again encounter the cowboy (narrator), sitting at the bar. who renders a rambling monologue that ends the tale: “The Dude takes it easy for all the losers….And it makes for a good story.

He makes sure to mention that there’s “Little Dude” on the way, that’s the human nature.