An American in Denial
Can we be blunt? Jerry Mulligan isn't a very good artist. He's thoroughly mediocre, and he knows it. That's why he's holed up in Paris. He hopes some of the city's creative magic will rub off on him and his paintbrush:
JERRY: I came to Paris to study and to paint because Utrillo did, and Lautrec did, and Rouault did. I loved what they created, and I thought something would happen to me, too.
If getting tangled up in a love triangle counts as "something happening" to Jerry, then our main man Mulligan is a wild success. But we're pretty sure breaking hearts isn't what he had in mind when put down roots in Paris.
Living in Paris doesn't pump up Jerry's painting prowess, but it does serve as the perfect backdrop for the fantasy life he creates in order to avoid facing the truth about his lack of talent:
JERRY: Back home, everyone said I didn't have any talent. They might be saying the same thing over here, but it sounds better in French.
It's curious that Jerry thinks his haters sound better in French since, by all accounts, when it comes to criticism, Jerry isn't trying to hear it, period. Jerry likes playing the starving artist more than he likes actually getting down to work. He's got big dreams and zero ambition. That's why he repeatedly turns down Milo's offers to sponsor him.
Milo's intentions for Jerry are more than a little bit murky, but what spooks Jerry most about Milo is that she knows he's a slacker. When Jerry initially balks at the exhibition she lines up for him, Milo calls him on his lack of ambition and fear of feedback:
MILO: Look, you're a painter, and a good one. I happen to have a little drive. That's a good combination. Besides, you have to face the critics some time.
Milo may be a shady lady with designs on more than just Jerry's canvases (ahem), but she's got him dead to rights here. Jerry isn't just an American living in Paris; he's an American living in denial. He's created an elaborate fantasy world where owning a bunch of oil paints is all it takes to call yourself an artist, and nobody does a double-take if you suddenly burst into song.
Nowhere is Jerry's flair for the fantastic more apparent than in the lengthy ballet sequence that ends the movie. The An American in Paris Ballet is an enormous, extravagant explosion of Jerry's imagination, as he dances his way through one trippy, living painting after another. Even in his dreams, though, Jerry doesn't see himself as a painter. Rather, he inserts himself into a series of other painters' masterpieces. He's an artist by association, not by action.
Jerry's fantasy life isn't limited to his painting career; it also extends to his game with the ladies. In his mind, Jerry's a grade-A charmer. In reality, he's kind of a sleazeball. A brute. A cad. A wolf. (Thanks, thesaurus!)
When Jerry first lays eyes on Lise at the jazz club, it's love at first sight—well, for him anyway. For Lise? Not so much. Still, that doesn't stop Jerry from literally dragging her away from her friends and onto the dance floor against her will.
When it comes to women, Jerry's a guy who gets what he wants, even if he has to take someone dance-hostage. That's why it comes as a shock to Jerry when Lise isn't feeling him.
LISE: I don't know what type of girl you think I am, but I am not, and now I would like to return to my friends.
JERRY: I thought you were bored with them. You sure looked it.
LISE: You should see me now.
Sick burn, Lise. You'd think Jerry would take the hint, but he doesn't. Lise's repeated rejection of Jerry only makes him want her more, even if his corny come-ons are totally lost on her, like when he attempts to lay another patented Jerry Mulligan pick-up line on her along the banks of the Seine:
JERRY: Well, uh, with a binding like you've got, people are going to want to know what's in the book.
LISE: What does that mean?
JERRY: Well, uh, primarily, it means you're a very pretty girl.
LISE: I am?
JERRY: You are.
LISE: How do you know?
JERRY: I, uh, heard it on the radio.
Every time Jerry tries to turn on the charm, Lise blocks it like Dikembe Mutombo.
Milo, on the other hand, is Jerry's for the taking, and he uses it to his advantage. More accurately, he just uses her, period. When Lise chooses Henri over Jerry, he brushes it off like it's no big deal, claiming that he's got somebody else, too: Milo. You know Milo—the woman whose advances Jerry has straight-up spurned for the entire movie. When Jerry's wounded, all bets are off. He heads straight for Milo's hotel room. Then, as always, he lays it on thick, planting a big one on Milo and hijacking her evening:
JERRY: You and I are going out tonight. I'm going to take you to the art students' ball. You ever been to one?
JERRY: You'll love it. It's jet-propelled New Year's Eve, and everybody in Paris will be there.
MILO: It's costume, isn't it?
JERRY: Nevermind. I'll take care of all that. Leave it to me. Tonight's my night.
MILO: I feel like a woman for a change.
Jerry, you dog. Lise may've broken Jerry's heart, but using Milo to fill the void is just dirty. Jerry plays pretend when it comes to being a serious painter, but when it comes to being a cad, Jerry's the real deal.
Ultimately, Jerry is an odd protagonist. Traditionally, the protagonist is the hero of the story; the one whom the audience roots for. But at every turn, Jerry makes it tough to be #TeamJerry. He dreams of being a painter, but he doesn't want to put in the work. He finds a champion in Milo, and he treats her like dirt. He falls head-over-heels for Lise even though he knows next to nothing about her, she has a habit of ditching him, and, as he tells Adam, he doesn't even like hanging out with her some of the time:
JERRY: What gets me is, I don't know anything about her. We manage to be together for a few moments, and then off she goes. Sometimes we have a wonderful time together, and other times it's no fun at all. But I got to be with her.
In the end, Jerry does get to be with her, but it's never quite clear what Lise sees in Jerry—or what he sees in her, for that matter, at least beyond her pretty face. What is clear, however, is that Jerry's dogged pursuit of Lise stands in stark contrast to his pursuit of a painting career; you know, the whole reason he's in Paris in the first place. You get the idea that if Jerry funneled just an ounce of his amorous ambition into his artwork, he'd be the next Renoir.