Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?

The easy way tends to end in a disaster and loss of safe space, but trying again the hard way is no guarantee of success. In fact, it often leads to another failure. The difference, this time, is that our eyes are wide open, and suddenly we can see why we failed. Now we need to come face-to-face with the factor within ourselves that’s causing these failures. 

Most heroes discover they need to change their personalities at this point, but others realize they need to be true to themselves and stop trying to change. This is usually the point at which the hero replaces a false goal with a true goal, and a false philosophy with a corrected philosophy.
  • The couple realizes divorce just isn’t fun anymore in The Awful Truth. 
  • The parents decide they’ll probably split up in Raising Arizona. 
  • After admitting he’s not Italian, Dave in Breaking Away visits his father’s quarry and admits he’s not really a stonecutter, either. 
  • Andy in The 40-Year-Old Virgin freaks out about selling off his action figures. 
  • The heroes of Blue Velvet and Donnie Brasco realize how far they’ve fallen when they each hit a woman. 
  • The spiritual crisis is quite literal in Witness when the cop and his Amish crush finally kiss.
Straying from the Party Line: Rushmore’s Offscreen Catharsis
In Rushmore, at what point does Max Fischer finally turn a corner, get a girlfriend, and vow to make peace with everyone? Well, we don’t know, because we don’t see it. Instead, we see just the opposite.

We do get to see some personal growth: He finally apologizes to Dirk (spontaneously) and Margaret Yang (when prompted), he starts his first new society at his public school, he reaches out to Blume and exchanges medals with him. He reaches out to Miss Cross again with another aquarium scheme. But then, after that falls apart, we see him ordering dynamite and heading off to Rushmore with a rifle: “I have one more piece of unfinished business.” We then see him in a window aiming the rifle at his bully. To our relief, he just shoots him with a potato gun, then gives him a script for a play.

Nevertheless, as the next scene begins, somewhat-ominous drum music plays and we see that Max has gathered all of the characters from the movie, both friends and enemies, in one room for his play. Of course, we soon realize that, while his Vietnam play is far from safe, his intentions are entirely positive and this is a different Max: He’s got a girlfriend, he’s introducing everyone to his father, and he’s implicitly making peace with everyone he’s wronged.

This is tricky. Audiences do like going back and forth, sometimes getting ahead of the characters (we know what’s going to happen to them but they don’t) and sometimes falling behind (we can’t figure out what they’re doing for a few scenes), but this movie features false alienation: Intentionally making us doubt our trust in the main character, only to please us by re-affirming it.

In this case it works: it adds a little tension and excitement to an ending that might otherwise be anticlimactic. Yes, it’s a little disappointing that they have to skip over some of Max’s personal breakthroughs, but it’s a comedy, not a drama, and we’d rather get an nervous final laugh than a heartfelt catharsis.

In other cases, it doesn’t work: There’s a moment in the first season of “Mad Men” when Matthew Weiner decides to create the false impression that Don is preparing to kill his half-brother (instead, he’s going to pay him to leave town, which, as it turns out, causes him to commit suicide.) It’s essential to build identification with anti-heroes: We can’t sympathize, but we can at least empathize. By breaking identification in those scenes, Weiner briefly pushed our already-limited tolerance for Don past the breaking point, and struggled to get it back. When I recommended the show to people after that first season, I warned them about that episode: “At times the show will seem darker than it really is, but stick with it.”

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES, when Trish jumps his bones on the 20th date on a pile of his boxed up toys, he denounces her and flees.


Somewhat.  Decides to save the cat, showing that she’s now more empathetic.

An Education

YES.  She finds out that he’s married.

The Babadook

YES. Ditto.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Just a minor one, and it happens offscreen.  Around the time of that an army of villains is rounded up to destroy the town, he realizes that saving this town is also a chance to help his own people.  

Blue Velvet

YES.  Well, the real spiritual crisis happens earlier, and continues for a long time, but it does culminate when he sees how his behavior looks in Sandy’s eyes when she finds out.  

The Bourne Identity

YES. seeing her family, he says that he doesn’t want to know who he is anymore. 


YES. Megan stops by and set her straight.


NO. Actually, the opposite of a setback causes the crisis: Ilsa says she’ll come with him, and he realizes that it’s wrong.


YES. Yes, finds out the truth about Evelyn and Catherine (and the glasses).  

Donnie Brasco

YES.  hits his wife, feels certain he’ll have to kill someone soon in the mob.

Do the Right Thing

YES. something in him snaps. 

The Farewell

YES. …but her mother quickly disabuses her of that notion.  (She can’t cook, clean, or write Chinese.)

The Fighter

YES. It’s not so much a setback as a dangerous bit of success: he takes good advice from Dicky, putting him back in danger of falling into his old ways.


YES. Hans betrays her. 

The Fugitive

YES. he realizes how naïve he’s been and that he’s been betrayed by his friend.

Get Out

YES. he realizes when he speaks to Jim in pre-op what white people really see in him.  

Groundhog Day

YES. He realizes that he’s a terrible person, and if he’s a god, he’s got to be a good god. 

How to Train Your Dragon

NO. Not really. Again, the crises are reversed in this movie. He has the spiritual crisis in the first quarter, has no midpoint crisis, then loses everything at the ¾ mark (but not in a way that makes him question his already-corrected philosophy). So then, given the fact that he is on the straight and narrow from minute 20, why doesn’t the movie feel inert? Because there are so many ramifications of that initial crisis for him to deal with, and because he still tries to have it both ways until the loss of everything at the ¾ mark.

In a Lonely Place

YES. but only at the very end when he realizes that his fiancé is leaving him.

Iron Man

YES. He has several spiritual crises in this movie, but yes, he does have an ultimate one here when he has to crawl to claim his old heart back.

Lady Bird

YES. When she ditches Kyle. 

Raising Arizona

YES. They decide to split up after all this is over.


YES. Ms. Cross definitively rejects him and he drops out to become a barber.


YES. He reverses the second march.  That night, one of the white northern priests who’s disappointed by the decsion (“He owes me a return ticket”) is killed while waiting for action in Selma.

The Shining

YES. (Danny re-emerges as sole hero) When Danny assumes his mother is dead, and then his spiritual mentor Hallorann is killed, he finally shakes out of it and goes mano-a-mano.


YES. He finds out his novel isn’t getting published, and he admits that he’s not going to make it as a novelist, isn’t a good person.

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Lecter’s escape questions whether it was worth it to work with him.

Star Wars

YES. This causes him to doubt the force, fall back on his reliance on technology and his original dream of becoming a fighter pilot.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. when he realizes that Betty wants to leave Artie for him.  


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