29 June 2010

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: WITH A LITTLE SEX IN IT

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: the notion of trying to appeal to both the menfolk and the wimminfolk by combining romantic comedy and action-adventure goes back farther than Knight and Day. To prove it, let's take a look at one of the best high-concept hits from that glorious heyday of the high-concept, the 1980s.

There is an almost embarrassing wealth of anecdotes or conceptual frameworks that one could use to begin a review of Romancing the Stone. One could describe how it miraculously created Robert Zemeckis's career from a whole lot of nothing, even as all the Hollywood pundits were convinced that it would be the third strike that would send him packing back to the Midwestern backwater that he came from. One could relate the sad tale of writer Diane Thomas, a struggling screenwriter working as a waitress who pitched the idea to a mostly unknown producer and actor named Michael Douglas, and whose promising future career was cut brutally short when she died in a car accident the year after Romancing the Stone premiered. You could position it in the grand flowering of Raiders of the Lost Ark clones in the early-to-mid 1980s (though it was written before that film's premiere). Or point out that it's yet another in the tradition of movies whose shoots were generally unpleasant for most everyone involved, and yet all that misery paid of in a handsomely successful movie that hums as entertainment.

Instead, I'm just going to start by saying: Romancing the Stone, what a damn fun movie it is. Not especially smart, not especially innovative. But every inch of it is blazingly entertaining, and that, ultimately, is what we are allowed to ask of popcorn movies, non? Moreover, "smart" and "innovative" have their place, but so too does "immaculately well-crafted", and it's much too easy to forget that, for most of his career, Zemeckis has been a sterling cinematic craftsmen, whose movies rarely if ever startle with an unexpected moment of poetry or magic in the way of his mentor, Steven Spielberg, yet at the same time possess a confident perfection all their own, classical Hollywood filmmaking used at its brightest and surest.

In the beginning, in the Old West, there is a menacing gunslinger (Ted White) preparing to rob, rape, and probably shoot a beautiful woman named Angelina (Kym Herrin) in a remote cabin in the desert. She manages to throw a dagger into his chest and escape, but his relatives are just about to capture her, when a handsome cowboy named Jessie (Bill Burton) swoops in and saves her, gathering her in his arms and kissing her passionately. At this moment, we skip to New York, 1984, where Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) is bawling over the perfection of the moment she has just created - for Joan is a novelist, and the story of Angelina and Jessie was all in her head. See what I mean, that the movie isn't startling? How many freaking films open with a fake-out scene that turns out to be the real protagonist's fantasy? Yet it's handled brilliantly, with over-the-top dialogue and melodrama in the Western scenes that contrasts well with Joan's outsized appreciation for her own artistry (which we instantly read, correctly, as her desperate romanticism).

Then follows a short collection of shots: the bawling Joan grabs for a tissue, but the box is empty; she runs to the bathroom, but she's out of toilet paper; she goes to the kitchen (still sobbing), and has no paper towels. She then spots a note on the refrigerator: "Buy tissue". At a loss, she grabs it and uses it to blow her nose. Again, nothing earth-shattering, but it could not be executed with more perfect comic timing: the exact length of shots and exact positioning of inserts is flawless, building the gag's momentum, using comedies Rule of Three and then quietly, wonderfully violating it, and doing so in a way that establishes character with a bang: it seems that Joan goes through this exact process (write something goopily romantic, fall into pieces from it) way too often.

And functionally, that's how Romancing the Stone is going to play it for the rest of its 106 minutes: each tiny moment is funny, nor could it be any funnier, and it makes us understand and like the characters a little bit more than we did just a moment ago. The deft hand that would lead to the subsequent Zemeckis projects Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit standing proud as two of the most impeccable Hollywood films of their era - impeccable by any standard, not just popcorn movie standards - is already on full display (and truth be told, was already present in his earlier features, I Want to Hold Your Hand and Used Cars, which are slight but at least good enough to deserve rediscovery some day), and even if Romancing the Stone isn't miraculous enough to win any plaudits as the best of the year or what have you, it's a pretty crackerjack bit of filmmaking anyway.

This wouldn't matter very much if the story and characters weren't up to the top-notch craft that the filmmakers expend on them, of course; that is the limitation of really excellent classical-style filmmaking. Luckily, then, Thomas's screenplay (massaged by script doctors) is pretty darn playful and fun all by itself: it drifts so slowly from outright comedy to outright adventure, with a feint back towards comedy (and always romantic, from the opening scene to the last shot), that it never feels contrived; it is indeed one of the most organic adventure-comedies of the last 30 years. What happens, if you're unfortunate enough to have missed this one, is that Joan's sister (Mary Ellen Trainor), in Colombia looking for her missing and probably dead husband, gets herself kidnapped by two idiot antiquities smugglers, the cousins Ralph (Danny DeVito) and Ira (Zack Norman). They get in touch with Joan, demanding that she come to Colombia with a treasure map which she just got in the mail from her late brother-in-law, and she flies over promptly, followed by a mysterious figure we'll later learn is Colonel Zolo (Manuel Ojeda), a government official with a private army who wants the treasure map himself.

In Colombia, Joan gets misdirected into the jungle, and all seems to be at its worst, until she is saved by a heroic figure whose profile reminds her, down to the crumpled hat, of her beloved fantasy boyfriend, Jessie: except that Jack Colton (Michael Douglas, who also produced) is not nearly as romantic as the fictional cowboy. In fact he's a jerk, who at first looks at Joan and sees only dollar signs, which is why he agrees to help her find her sister. And the treasure, though he keeps that detail to himself.

Jack doesn't appear until surprisingly late in the game: nearly a quarter of the way into the movie. But once he does, Romancing the Stone turns into one of the most sparkling romantic adventure-comedies of the decade, and the 1980s were weirdly saturated with the things. As much as Thomas's screenplay gives Joan and Jack lots of genuinely good banter, and Zemeckis keeps the film upbeat and rollicking, most of the credit for this success has to go to Turner and Douglas, and considering how easily we could have ended up with neither of them in the film, it seems right to assume that Destiny Itself wanted Romancing the Stone to turn out well. Turner, already a hot commodity thanks to Body Heat, hated Zemeckis's shooting style, but stuck it out because she was a damn professional. Douglas, hardly on the A-list at the time, only took the role because he couldn't get anyone else interested; he was repaid by becoming a proper movie star. Together, their chemistry is electrifying, hypnotic, scintillating, all those adjectives that people use to describe to people onscreen who really, really have to make out right at this very second because it would be hot.

And not for nothing, but each of them gives a pretty outstanding performance individually: Turner, one of the highest-profile performers of the '80s and one of the most dreadfully under-appreciated since then, was at her very best as Joan, capturing the very essence of the glib, naïve romantic who just wants a man to take her away and love her; and then, when she finds that the man of her dreams is a piece of work, she begins to slowly figure out how to be her own woman for the first time in forever (in effect, she has the precise opposite character arc of Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, reflecting maybe the difference between having a female screenwriter, and having Spielberg and Lucas). She even manages to convince us, in the early scenes, that she lives a drab and plain live, despite the fact demonstrated in this very same film that you can't put enough flannel and ugly hair on Kathleen Turner to make her look any less than smoking hot.

Douglas, meanwhile, plays the same character he would continue to play for two decades: the intensely charming jackass (here, at least, he learns better by the end; this did not always happen). And since Douglas still acts, and still plays the charming jackass regularly, it requires little explanation to say why it works. But in '84, that wasn't his shtick yet; in '84 it was fresh and exciting, and all these years later it's still fresher than most of his subsequent attempts at the same basic character.

Romancing the Stone is such a breezy treat for so much of its length that I feel bad calling it out: but there are the usual issues with films of this genre, starting with its incredibly flippant treatment of non-white, non-Americans: the Noo Yawk smugglers are comic villains subject to slapstick, while the Latino crimelord is a real threat who accordingly gets a gruesome end. (I am undecided about Alfonso Arau's Juan, a crackpot thief in the brush who adores Joan's novels and is perhaps the most gleefully absurd ingredient in the whole movie). It's also hard to stomach the film's refusal to follow through on make Joan an action hero: after all the expected boilerplate about the prim city girl with too many clothes learning how to function and even thrive in the jungle - boilerplate, mind you, partially because this film set the template - she has to prove unable to save herself in the end, so that Jack can come in to save the day. In the film's defense, it's this moment that puts the cap on Jack's own character arc, so maybe the trade-off seemed worth it to the filmmakers. Still, couldn't they have found a way to do both?

That aside, Romancing the Stone is a grand example of the rarest combination of adventure, humor, and sexual chemistry which all crackle along with abandon; for that reason alone I must declare it to be one of the most entertaining movies of its generation. Look no further than it's dreadful sequel from the following year, The Jewel of the Nile, to see how badly some of the same material could be played in the hands of a lesser writer and director (just about the only part of that movie that doesn't suck air is the continued chemistry between Douglas and Turner, though even this is but a pale shadow). Though I am as guilty as anyone of using "entertaining" as a synonym for "pleasant and not at all good", let Romancing the Stone's dominance over its many imitators prove otherwise: a truly entertaining movie that works in every way is as hard to come by as the most artistically probing thing out there, and should be treated with just as much love and respect.

2 comments:

The.Watcher said...

I'm actually watching this movie right now!
I agree with your review, it is an excellent adventure movie.
Shame the sequel wasn't nearly as good, though.

javi75 said...

When you say the script was "massaged by script-doctors" are you referring to the re-shoots?
I watched the deleted scenes on the blu-ray last night, they run for 20 minutes, but actually there aren't any deleted scenes there, they're all alternate scenes.

After watching them, I have to think that the night scene inside the airplane that we see in the movie was a re-shoot, because in that scene they convey exactly the same information as in a bunch of the deleted scenes. Only they do it a thousand times better, with more heart, better comedy and more natural dialogue. It's like after the main shoot they already knew who this characters were and were able to make the scene much better. The original scenes are quite awful.

And then you have the other bunch of "deleted" scenes, which are the original scenes of Joan and her editor, whom is played by a man! These scenes are also a lot less comedic than the ones in the movie, and the one for the beginning of the movie sets the story and themes up much worse than the one in the final version (maybe there were more scenes). Also, the scene for the ending of the movie gives the impression that originally Jack didn't return.