Ever notice that every blockbuster movie 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 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.)
Joel's ordinary world is insanely depressing. His girlfriend Naomi is gone and he doesn't seem to be having much fun or really enjoying life. He's not exciting or adventurous…and neither is his life.
Then he meets Clementine and things are so much better—until they aren't. She gets mad at Joel and he gets mad at her, and it seems as if Joel is destined to lead an uber-depressing existence.
Call To Adventure
But then Joel finds out that Clem erased him entirely from her memory. He tries to talk to her, but she has no idea who he is. His friends try to calm him but Joel's obviously not a happy camper about it. Something has to be done.
Refusal Of The Call
Joel's first response is sadness (typical Joel), but his second is anger and a need for vengeance. His first trip to Lacuna is filled with disbelief, but he decides to erase Clem from his memory, as much to get even with her as to forget about her.
Meeting The Mentor
Joel's only real mentor in the film is himself. We could argue that Howard or even Clementine helps guide him through his memories as he tries to hold onto them, but we have to remember that these are just Joel's memories of these people, not the people themselves.
It's really Joel who's subconsciously advising his conscious self as the latter treks through the realm of the former.
Crossing The Threshold
Joel crosses the threshold into the other world (the world of memories, in this case) before he or the audience even realizes it. We see him take the pills and we watch Patrick and Stan come into the room…but none of it will make sense until we are already going through Joel's mind and reach the recent Lacuna memories. Joel starts experiencing some weird symptoms and realizes his journey through his own mind has already begun.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Joel's tests—and his journey as a whole—can be looked at in two ways. First we have the journey contained within the dream. These tests are his attempts to warn Clem of Patrick, who he's learned is dating her by being manipulative, and, more importantly, to hold on to some of his good memories so he doesn't forget what being with Clem was like.
His second journey is the journey we're experiencing in reverse: his relationship with Clem. These tests involve navigating that difficult space between two people as they fall in love and end up at odds. It's Joel's struggle to get along with Clementine so they're both happy with one another.
Approach To The Inmost Cave
Joel's inmost cave is the fall forest he and Clem find themselves in. It's the last moment of peace he gets before the hectic Ordeal of running and hiding from the procedure. It's in the forest that Joel finally realizes getting rid of his bad memories isn't worth losing the good memories, and it's this moment of clarity that drives the following climax of the film.
During the Ordeal, Joel and Clem are running everywhere in Joel's mind, trying to dodge Howard. First they head to a series of baby Joel memories, then to some embarrassing repressed memories, and finally their last happy moments together before it's all gone.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
Unfortunately for Joel, there is no triumph during the Ordeal, and so there's no reward at the end. He was unable to hold on to his memories of Clem…just like he was unable to hold onto her. For all his efforts, Joel's reward is a mind free of all the good and the bad left in his life by Clementine.
The Road Back
Joel's road back is a strange one, because we've seen it before. He wakes up and goes to Montauk although he doesn't know why. He meets Clem and they go to her place for drinks, then they head out on the ice and look at the stars, just like they did before.
Then we get something new: Clem finds evidence about her Lacuna procedure.
Joel's Resurrection is his fight with Clem at the movie's close. They're both hurt by the mean things they've said about each other on their Lacuna tapes, and both of their first reactions is to end the relationship they've barely started.
However, after admitting both the possibility of the relationship and the possibility that it all goes wrong again, they decide to stick it out and see if they can be happy with each other.
Return With The Elixir
Whether or not Joel's elixir—happiness—will continue to exist is a big question left by the film. It's unclear whether or not Joel and Clem will find happiness with each other, or whether they'll continually erase each other until they're old and don't need the procedure to forget.
The optimist in us wants to believe their awareness of their past will be all they need to attain the elixir, but there's no way to know.