' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Romancing the Stone (1984)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Romancing the Stone (1984)

The utterly incomparable Wesley Morris recently took stock of the twenty year old phenomenon of “Forrest Gump” for Grantland and wrote something that intrigued me amidst many, many things that intrigued me. He said “with Zemeckis it’s the gimmickry of his filmmaking that can thrill you.” That’s Robert Zemeckis, of course, director of “Forrest Gump” and a trove of other box office smashes, including 1984’s “Romancing the Stone”, which pulled nearly $77 million, placing it at #8 in the yearly box office rankings. And a film that I remembered as being playful and vibrant still very much is, but it also very much betrays its gimmickry. This, I must stress, is not a bad thing.

It is centered around Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), an author of the romance lit variety who lives alone in the heart of New York City with her cat and her miniature airplane bottles of booze and the posters of her own books on the wall flaunting the man she created - Jesse - and whom she hopes will one day rescue her and love her forever and ever and ever. It is not, shall we say, a flattering portrayal, and reminds me of something else Morris said in that “Forrest Gump” piece. He said: “Zemeckis has no idea what to do with women.” You watch these opening sequences with their gloriously nostalgic mid-80’s soft FM saxophone as Joan finishes her latest book amidst tears and then realizes she never saw the Post-It note she left as a reminder buy Kleenex and you think, Yeah, he has no idea what to do with women. And maybe he doesn't, but maybe the film's screenwriter does.

“Romancing the Stone” was written by Diane Thomas, a supernova who was working as a waitress in Malibu when she penned “Romancing the Stone”, sold it for some cold hard cash and watched its box office go loco. No less an authority than Steven Spielberg brought her into the fold to write “Always” and begin work on a “Indiana Jones” sequel. Then, she died in a fiery car crash in 1985. F***ing life, man. It’s difficult to track down definitive info on Ms. Thomas’s motives when considering her terribly unfortunate death happened pre-Intwerwebs, but this comprehensive piece at Romance University labels the late Ms. Thomas “an avid romance reader.” Indeed, as Thomas appeared to know this territory well, as the film can kind of be viewed as a far less existential precursor to “Adaptation” – the Donald Kaufman half of “Adaptation”, that is.

After finishing her latest manuscript, Joan is summoned to the wilds of Colombia by her sister who has gotten herself into a wee spot of derring-do over a treasure map that supposedly leads to a majestical green stone probably worth more than The Heart of the Ocean. So despite being - in the phrase of Garrison Keillor - a great indoorsman, Joan lights out for South America and promptly finds herself on the wrong bus and at the mercy of the film's chief heavy, General Zolo (Manuel Ojeda), who's maybe just a tad too evil when viewed in context of the film's overriding comic chicanery.

Enter: Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas). The hero. The Jesse in the romance novel of Joan Wilder's life, and that's just the thing. Zemeckis's gimmickry is what thrills you in his filmmaking and “Romancing the Stone” is distinctly about Joan becoming ensnared in the gimmickry she has been penning all her life. This suggests a self-aware movie, one in which Joan can sense every twist of the plot and call it out before it happens, or adjust the plot on the fly by guessing ahead and preemptively adjusting, sort of a more swashbuckling “Delirious.” Yet, the script of Ms. Thomas has far too much reverence for the bounty of books from which it is cribbed to be so boorish.

And if The Hero's Journey is not complete until the Hero has Returned With The Elixir - a lesson of some sort, a metaphorical potion from the the Special World into which She has Crossed - than Joan Wilder's Elixir is realizing that, yes, her stories are true. The gimmick gives way to dreamy veracity.


Derek Armstrong said...

I suppose you're right that there is a gimmickry to this film, but when I started to read that take on it, I had no idea what you were talking about. FM saxophone withstanding, there's something down and dirty about this film that I love. Few movies with this kind of box office ambition would throw you straight into the the grimiest corners of South America and leave you feeling like there was legitimate danger around every turn. The fish-out-of-water stuff works so well here because she is SO FAR out of that water -- even the hero seems, at first, as likely to kill her as to rescue her. Each time I watch Romancing the Stone again (which is far too infrequently) I have to remind myself that this was a huge box office hit (which triggered that guilty pleasure sequel Jewel of the Nile, as well as the on-screen collaboration behind War of the Roses). It seems too funky by half to have been as mainstream as it was.

Nick Prigge said...

"...even the hero seems, at first, as likely to kill her as to rescue her." Very true. Appreciate your take on it, and I think you're right. I sort of half remember feeling this way the first time I saw it way back when.

Watching it almost immediately after reading that Morris piece and having seen it numerous times over the years, I think I'm sort of conditioned to read it a different way than I would have been originally. But there IS absolutely something funky about that I reckon would prevent it from being made the way it was in this day and age.