Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Romancing the Stone / ***1/2 (1984)

There is an observation in the last five minutes of “Romancing the Stone” that provides a great framework for the material that comes before: in it, romance novelist Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) is staring out of a window in the building of her publisher, who has just finished reading her new manuscript and offers a brief glimpse into her client’s silent desires. “You are now officially a hopeless romantic,” she says. “Not hopeless,” Joan corrects: “hopeful.” And with that remark comes the realization that her preceding adventures – be they about love or dangerous encounters with treasure-hungry foreign rebels – do not always have to end with the damsel being lost in the shuffle of less optimistic realities. Even when her romantic interest, the brave but mysterious Jack (Michael Douglas), leaves her standing at the site of her near demise, she isn’t resigned to a morose perspective. She believes, rightfully, that one day it will all come to a happy ending, and one that is authentic to the context of what the movie has built us up to.

We are often unfair to films that treat these realities with positive outlooks, usually because they seem so incongruent with the realities they hope to emulate. But “Romancing the Stone” is more than that: an amusing, exciting and sincere little film that frees itself from the pesky trend of a conventional storybook romance, and finds the right equilibrium between the chemistry and limitations of an amorous interaction. Also remarkable is how so many differing personalities are juggled into an effective rhythm through the film without being forgotten about in the process. There are no less than a dozen major speaking parts – some minor, others marginal – and each plays a purpose relative to the narrative trajectory. How many movies that are over 30 years old can you name in which you remember the names of all the participants, and what makes so many of them unique from one another?

Turner stars as the aforementioned author, an introverted and lonely sort whose creative energies seem to flow in abundant supply. The first sequence is a visualization of the story she is just about to finish, a western thriller/romance in which a heroine must seek revenge and then ride off to meet “Jesse,” the love of her life. For Joan, both characters are avatars for buried desires: she wants to be the woman who finds happiness through danger, and Jesse is the mysterious figure who will make all her dreams come true. Life, unfortunately, isn’t so glamorous, and on her way to meet her publisher she is so easily hassled in the streets by peddlers that one wonders how she ever made it this far (especially in a big city like Manhattan).

Those are all framing devices spotted a mile away; not so easy to figure out, however, are the early motives of others, who converge on Joan when she comes into possession of a treasure map sent to her by her dead brother-in-law. The conflict: this map reveals the location of a highly sought after stone in the jungles of Columbia, and when it is made aware that it has fallen into the lap of an oblivious writer in New York, thieves and rebels come beckoning. Two of them – a bungling pair of nitwits played by Zack Norman and Danny DeVito – kidnap Joan’s sister and threaten to kill her if the map is not delivered to them. On the contrasting side, the menacing Zolo (Manuel Ojeda) sneaks into her apartment, trashes it looking for the map, and then murders the janitor when he spies the break-in. Joan isn’t exactly sure just how much trouble all of this can lead to, but of course her core is one of loyalty, and out of desperation to save her sister she flies to Columbia to deliver the ransom.

Things, naturally, unravel in rapid intervals. Stalked by the ruthless Zolo, she winds up getting on the wrong bus at the airport, and becomes displaced in the jungles, where the rebels trail her like predators on a feast for greed. A mysterious American adventurer – some might call him the archetype for the Crocodile Dundee persona – stumbles upon her and agrees to transport her to Cartagena, where her sister Elaine (Mary Ellen Trainor) is currently being held captive. The story whips breezily through these exchanges because they are only devices to propel more inevitable realities: namely, the sweeping rush of adventure, and the undeniable chemistry that will develop between the two leads, especially as the threats of others begin to weigh heavily on them (something about grave danger must make for good foreplay, it seems). I once saw all of the exchanges between Turner and Douglas as just obligatory fill-ins between elaborate chases and action sequences, but in my later years I began to see the strength of them. They are not forced interactions in the least; both stars seem to be swimming in the reverie of their professional kinship, and reveal it in dialogue and gestures that are natural, amusing and rather believable. They are lovers destined to be together not just because they share a scary journey through the jungles, but because they seem just as natural a match as Doris Day and Rock Hudson brought together by circumstance.

If that was not as apparent in the years immediately following the film’s release, it has certainly risen to greater clarity in contrast to what is currently playing at the movie theater. As a notable comparison point, I saw “Romancing the Stone” again just a few days after a second viewing of “Jurassic World,” which deals with a similar situation of characters caught in a wilderness of ghastly threats. The difference between the two, not surprisingly, is astounding; while the newer film effectively stages all of its action in a display of precise visual choreography, the dinosaurs are, really, the only interesting thing to look at; the characters (including the wisecracking good guy played by Chris Pratt) drift easily off into the backdrop, upstaged by the budget of computer effects artists. By revisiting this picture, I was reminded of the possibilities of good human interaction and how they intensify the more sensational material. A great many things occur to Joan Wilder and Jack T. Colton here – most of it very implausible – but we suspend disbelief because the journey is enriched by relatable facets rather than just outlandish visuals. If all things in resonating blockbusters are about a good balancing act between the illusions and the reality, this remains a model example of that mutual set of values.

When it comes to films that are representative of the best of the 1980s, “Romancing the Stone,” is one of a handful of pictures I revisit in frequent intervals. Like “The Goonies,” it fills the foreground with genuine personalities before thrusting them into a fantastical situation. Like “Working Girl,” it understands how human interaction works, even in scenarios where sensations are at their most extreme. Like “The Neverending Story,” it perceives the world of fiction as a precursor to the way things are meant to be. And like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” – the movie that clearly inspired it – it all comes together in a strategic arrangement of production values, insightful dialogue and well-executed sequences, all of which are used to build the material rather than distract us for no meaningful purpose. Some of it is also deliriously funny; the character played by Danny DeVito, for instance, garners laughs by clumsily playing against the film’s underlying danger, and does it as a consequence of presence rather than just strategic writing.

What was it about that decade in particular that gave movies like this such a distinct edge? Perhaps the 70s – viewed by film historians as the age of discovery – set the groundwork for a new generation of directors who were liberated by the filmmaking experience, and infused their work with a sense of joy and spirit as a way of celebrating their sweeping creative opportunities. Or perhaps it came down a lucidity of principles: because filmmakers like Lucas and Spielberg were champions of fantasies that could appeal to whole families, maybe their successors were enriched enough by the formula to fuel new degrees of creative energy. In either case, many of these sorts of achievements hold up remarkably well, even by the standards of today’s more cynical worldview. Here is yet another reminder that the best audience entertainments are not the types that force their enthusiasm, but rather the ones that have the courage to gaze into individual lives and involve them in dynamic situations without reducing them to senseless drones in a show of endless special effects.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Adventure/Romance (US); 1984; Rated PG; Running Time: 106 Minutes

Kathleen Turner: Joan Wilder
Michael Douglas: Jack T. Colton
Danny DeVito: Ralph
Zack Norman: Ira
Manuel Ojeda: Zolo
Mary Ellen Trainor: Elaine
Holland Taylor: Gloria

Produced by Jack Brodsky, Joel Douglas and Michael Douglas; Directed by Robert Zemeckis; Written by Diane Thomas

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