Ever notice that every blockbuster film has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote the The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Jerry's ordinary world is his meager Paris pad, where he struggles to eke out a living as a painter. He's single, and his lack of cash frustrates him, but overall, he's pretty happy. At least he thinks he is. Being a starving artist is his status quo, and he's resistant to change.
Call to Adventure
Jerry's journey is pretty complex, but don't worry; we'll guide you through it. In the simplest terms, he's an unlikely hero on a quest for growth and change as a human being. Sounds easy enough, right? (Ha.)
In order for Jerry to succeed, he needs to face the critics—not only of his art, but also of his character. Therefore, Jerry's adventure starts when he heads to Montmartre to sell his paintings and actually put his art out into the world where it, and Jerry himself, can be challenged and subjected to criticism.
Refusal of the Call
When the young woman whom Jerry quickly stereotypes as a typical third-year art student begins appraising his paintings, Jerry shuts her down and tells her to scram. He refuses to subject himself to criticism, especially criticism from (gasp!) a woman.
Meeting the Mentor
Jerry first meets Milo, his guide through the art world, when she offers to buy two of his paintings. If the fact that he's never even considered how much to charge for his art is any indication, Jerry sorely needs a mentor if he's going to evolve. The fact that his powerful benefactor is a woman is problematic for Jerry, but the fact that he accepts Milo's sponsorship is a step in the right direction for our static, selfish hero.
Crossing the Threshold
When Jerry accepts Milo's help, he puts one foot across the threshold. When he meets Lise at the jazz club, he flings his whole body across. In An American in Paris, Jerry's greatest opportunity for real growth comes not from his painting career, but from his relationships with women. When he meets Lise, she shakes him up. It's love at first sight—for Jerry, at least—and his quest is on like Donkey Kong. He wants something, and he's actually going to pursue it instead of waiting for it drop into his lap the way he's done with his dreams of art stardom.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Jerry's quest for growth takes place on two fronts: in his romantic pursuit of Lise, and in his Milo-guided pursuit of a real-deal painting career. Predictably, he faces plenty of obstacles on his two-pronged journey.
For starters, there's Lise herself. She wants nothing to do with Jerry at the jazz club and gives him a fake phone number. When one of her friends accidentally gives Jerry the right digits and he calls her at work, she instructs him to never call her again. Ouch.
Ultimately, Jerry's charm wears Lise down and they start seeing each other. Do the romantic obstacles stop? Not by a longshot. Lise is prone to running away at the drop of a hat. She refuses to say where she goes, and with whom. Jerry accepts her silence, but it vexes him something fierce.
Secondly, Jerry's professional relationship with Milo constantly tests him. He struggles to accept her power, primarily because she's a woman. When she offers him a studio, for example, he turns it down before he accepts it. When she tells him that she's lined up an exhibition for him, he freaks out and says his art can't be rushed before she pep-talks him into putting paintbrush to canvas. Each time Milo lends Jerry her resources, it tests his masculinity and pride. In that respect, Milo—despite her shady designs on Jerry—isn't Jerry's biggest enemy when it comes to his growth as an artist; Jerry is.
We might also be tempted to peg Henri as an enemy, but we shouldn't. We know that Henri is Jerry's competition for Lise, but Jerry doesn't. Neither does Henri, for that matter. Henri's more of an obstacle than an enemy, as he unwittingly complicates Jerry and Lise's relationship.
All along the way, Jerry's biggest ally is Adam. He supports Jerry when he's up, like when he accompanies Jerry's joyful rendition of "Tra-La-La (This Time It's Really Love)" on his trusty piano. He's got Jerry's back when he's down, too, whether that's lending him lunch money or just lending him his ear. Jerry's journey toward personal growth is both personal and professional, and Adam's there for him across the board.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
This stage in Jerry's journey arrives when Henri advises him to confess his true feelings to Lise. Once he does that, there's no going back. He'll either get the girl, or he'll get dumped.
Jerry's faces his biggest challenge yet when he tells Lise that he loves her and she says she's engaged to another man and bound for America. After this ordeal, Jerry's life looks like it'll never be the same again.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
This stage in a hero's journey is all about being transformed. Jerry survives his break-up with Lise, and he channels all of his energy into his dream of conquering the art world. He returns to Milo, focusing his attention on her and his sponsorship. It's not the reward that he wanted, but it'll have to do.
The Road Back
The Road Back is the reverse of the Call to Adventure. This is where the hero crosses back over the threshold a changed man. For Jerry, it's taking Milo to the art students' ball. His relationship with her, his sponsor, has been transformed. He's all-in. His relationship with Lise has changed, too. When he runs into Lise and Henri at the ball, he stays mum as Henri shares the news of their engagement and departure for America.
The Resurrection is the hero's biggest, baddest, most dangerous battle. For Jerry, that's letting Lise go, presumably forever. He watches her leave with Henri, and then works through his grief with a crazy-pants dream sequence where he imagines himself and Lise dancing through a series of living French paintings.
It may seem strange to think of Jerry letting Lise leave as a successful outcome, but trust us, it is. Our little Jerry's all grown up. He was on a quest for personal growth, and the fact that he loves Lise enough to let her do her own thing shows that he's evolved into a better man. A totally heartbroken man who's also totally ticked off Milo, his benefactor, but a better man nonetheless.
Return With the Elixir
Ultimately, Jerry's growth is rewarded when Lise returns. The fact that she chooses him—this aggressive slacker who initially annoyed the heck out her—is a testament to Jerry's growth. With Lise on his arm, he leaves the art students' ball and returns to the streets of Paris a changed man.