Falling Down is probably the funniest movie of the year. It is also a serious, though not totally successful, attempt at social drama. What is useful for us as writers is to see why this strange mix works so well.
All good writing begins with design, and Falling Down is no exception. Let’s look at some choices.
The typical writer who wanted to tell a story of a man who faced the lie of the American dream would probably place the hero in a crumbling neighborhood or a brutal company. The larger forces of society would attack relentlessly, the hero would fight back valiantly. The result: a one-beat social issue story that no one sees.
The writer of Falling Down chose a very different structure. First, and most importantly, he gives the story a myth foundation. This automatically gives the film an epic quality and kicks it up to an American scale. In particular, this is the ever-popular Odyssey story in which the hero must get home.
Second, the writer turns the myth structure/Odyssey story on its head; the home is a broken one, the man is slightly wacky, and the wife doesn’t want him. This makes the film an anti-Odyssey story, which means that the overall structure will itself express the theme of the lie of the American dream.
Third, the writer makes most of the social conflict scenes comedic. Not only does this relieve the monotony of the usual social drama, it moves the story into the realm of the black comedy, which is the most devastating of all social fiction. But the writer goes further still. Had he simply made this a black comedy, it would likely have fallen victim to the usual vice of the black comedy: being too rarefied for the audience. The brilliant design move in Falling Down was combining the black comedy with the myth structure, making the film universal, accessible and thematically powerful at the same time. Let’s look at the structure of this film in more detail to see how it really works.
Problem/Need: The main character, Bill (aka DeFens), is in trouble from the opening scene. Stuck in a traffic jam, Bill is invaded from all sides by the sights and sounds of social crush. He is indeed on the defensive, and when he runs away from his car, he finds not relief but rather more assault. Even worse, Bill has also lost his job at the defense plant and his ex-wife has a restraining order that prevents him from seeing the little daughter he loves.
Bill’s need – what is lacking within the character – is where this film hits its first stumbling block. In order to show a man who is willing to use weapons in response to social slights, the writer has had to make him psychotic. Not only does this prevent the audience from identifying with the hero, it reduces the ultimate impact of the social commentary. It also makes it impossible for the hero to have a real moral need. This man has no control over his actions, so he cannot be blamed, even when he terrorizes his wife. The film partly overcomes this weakness by making Bill’s complaints so reasonable and his attackers so recognizable. But the fact remains that this man has a few screws loose.
Desire: Bill’s goal, like Dorothy’s and Ulysses’, is to get home to his family. Myth stories have a tendency to be episodic, so the writer wisely adds a time element to the hero’s journey to add momentum. Bill must get home in time for his daughter’s birthday party. The irony of course is that this is no longer Bill’s home. Notice how the use of an ironic goal allows the structure to carry the theme. Bill’s goal, which is nothing less than the idealized American dream, is in reality an ugly nightmare of divorce and separation. And the fragmentation that the hero experiences in the city at large is found in even worse form at the endpoint of his journey.
Opposition: As in any myth structure, Bill encounters a succession of opponents in his journey home. The strength of the myth form is that the journey gives the story a vast scope; the hero meets an array of people who represent a number of ethnic and economic categories. The weakness of the form is that it makes all of these opponents superficial. Since each opponent can only be seen for a brief time, the writer can give no one real definition. The film has rightfully been criticized for taking easy shots: the Latino gangbangers, the Korean grocer, the plastic surgeon. This lack of deep targets is the primary reason why the film remains superficial in its social commentary.
A more advanced form of social criticism would have searched for the web connecting all these disparate opponents under the surface. For while these people are clearly part of a fragmented world, they are also part of a system that creates fragmentation. The writer’s job is to find that system. Indeed the great power of the black comedy, as a story form, is not that it shows painful comedy, but that it explores the logic system that governs a society. This attention to logic, or more precisely illogic, is what sets Goodfellas apart as a great black comedy.
What distinguishes Falling Down from other myth-based stories is the presence of the retiring cop. He is the ongoing opponent who transcends the episodic opponents Bill encounters along the way. What’s more, he is the classic double of the hero. He too has been deprived of the American dream even though he played by the rules. He too has a disastrous home life. He too has a time limit to his day; this is his last day on the job. But unlike Bill, the cop does not use force to get back for the daily slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
The cop, especially as played by Robert Duvall, is a wonderful character. Like Bill, he has a need at the beginning of the story; he must take control of his home life and stand up for himself as the great cop that he is. The story thus tracks two parallel lines of character development, two ways of approaching the lie of the American dream, as Bill moves relentlessly toward his broken home.
Plan: Bill’s plan is simple: walk west and blow away anything that gets in his way. Because of its simplicity, the plan doesn’t really succeed in lessening the episodic nature of the myth form. That is accomplished more through the presence of the cop and Bill’s wife as ongoing opponents. Battle: The battle on the pier between Bill and the cop is a perfect convergence of a number of elements in the story. Bill finally faces off with his double, the cop. The cop compares his loss of a child with Bill’s. They discuss their two approaches to the lies they have both been told of the American dream. And the scene occurs, symbolically, on the westernmost finger of America. The impotent loner can’t go west anymore to escape the oppressive city. The cop offers Bill a choice, but he is too far gone to take it.
Self-Revelation: Bill doesn’t have a self-revelation. That was made impossible from the beginning when the writer, perhaps by necessity, made him a psycho. The cop does have a self-revelation, though. He sees that his work has value and that he is a good cop and a decent man. But the cop’s self-revelation, his decision not to retire, is only partially successful. Yes, it gives us a happy ending. But a cop is always after-the-fact. He’s the man who cleans up the mess. The larger forces that created the sick social world portrayed here have not been confronted. Even worse, they have not even been identified.
Perhaps I’m asking too much. After all this writer has been very successful in both structural design and comedic execution. To be honest with you, I can’t remember laughing so hard in a movie. But an opportunity for greatness was lost here. The fragmentation of the American city – and the resulting death of community – may be the central issue facing fiction writers today.
Whatever writer finds the structure to show the logic of the downward cycle of our world will truly have a great film.