Thursday, November 26, 2015

Romancing the Stone Movie Review

The movies you loved as a kid sometimes turn out to be classics (i.e. Back to the Future and Star Wars) while others, it turns out, were really just not very good. Ah, the undiscerning view from a child’s perspective. When you’re a kid, a movie is good or not because it has excitement, adventures, romance, and comedy. For some adults I guess that never changes. Before Robert Zemeckis directed Back to the Future, he had a big commercial success in Romancing the Stone, a sort of Raiders of the Lost Ark knock-off starring Kathleen Turner as a dowdy romance novelist and Michael Douglas as a roughneck who saves her in the jungles of Colombia.

Turner plays Joan Wilder, a woman who plays out her wild romantic adventure fantasies in novel after novel about a woman falling for a rugged adventurer. Trash sells, I guess, because her publisher is clamoring for the next one. She gets pulled from her two room apartment that she shares with her cat to go to Colombia to help her sister, who we learn through some awkward expository dialogue, just recently found her husband mutilated (everyone, Joan’s sister included, seems to be handling this turn of events with remarkable calm). But that’s because Romancing the Stone, with a screenplay by Diane Thomas, isn’t interested in real human emotion or reaction, but rather the kind of sweeping emotions that are emblematic of the kind of novels Joan Wilder writes.

The movie is also content to play on the audience’s ignorance of Colombian people, culture, and lifestyle. When Joan arrives at the airport (which looks suspiciously like a bus depot) a fight breaks out and the police rush in. Also, people with – how should I say it – not the usual sort of animals ride the bus. This was what Hollywood did in the 80s. It got cheap laughs and thrills out of Latin America because all we knew about it was drugs and violence. The equivalent film today would feature a woman traveling to Pakistan to encounter terrorists, men with long beards shouting aggressively in Arabic, and getting laughs out of it.

Yes, I get that Romancing the Stone is supposed to be nothing more than light adventure and romance, but it lazily treads through the plot ignoring questions of logic. Joan basically forgets that her sister’s life is in danger (her recently mutilated husband should make her very nervous because she doesn’t know that the kidnappers are not the same people). But she continually ignores her sister in trouble to go on an adventure with Jack T. Colton to find buried treasure. They are being pursued all the while by men who want to kill them and take their treasure map. By the way, she also doesn’t know if her pursuers are connected to her sister’s captors and so should probably just focus on getting the map to Cartagena to reunite with her. But adventure awaits!

The screenplay is rife with bad jokes and even worse clich├ęs, not only about Colombians but women and men – although it should be noted that Joan fights off and defeats Zolo the Butcher at the end without any male assistance. After having been helped by Jack through every conceivable treacherous situation from mudslides and snakes to gunfire, it’s nice that Joan arrived at a position as a woman where she can take care of herself.

Some of the set pieces are well-directed and it’s often clear that Douglas and Turner did a number of their own stunts, which helps keep you in the story. Danny DeVito is notably manic and hilarious as Ralph, a bumbling out-of-place New Yorker trying to get his hands on the treasure. If nothing else, Romancing the Stone has its place in film history as the movie that made it possible for Zemeckis to direct Back to the Future, which in turn opened the doors to Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump.

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