Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Saturday, May 10, 2014
Like A Shooting Star
It took a few years for the 80s to become the 80s, as far as films were concerned anyway. Many major studio releases during the first few years of the decade feel like they’re just beginning to branch away from the feel of the 70s but there’s still some of that roughness in the air and the future doesn’t seem completely formed just yet. The montages that we remember from the likes of TOOTSIE or NIGHT SHIFT are still done with that sort of Grusin/Shire/Bacharach easy listening vibe that feels like remnants of the very 70s world of AN UNMARRIED WOMAN--an excellent film and one I should write about one of these days but still very much a part of that decade. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this (to prove it I will now go for a walk listening to the TOOTSIE score on my iPod. All right, I’m back) but with some distance you do get a feel of how certain movies fit into exactly when they were made whether intentionally or not. If 1984 wasn’t the most 80s year of that decade it at least feels like the year where what we remember the 80s to be blossomed full bore. And looked at that way Robert Zemeckis’ ROMANCING THE STONE, released 3/30/84, could almost be considered one of the first real 80s movies. How much you consider this to be either praise or criticism, maybe I should leave up to you. Hell, even I’m not entirely certain. Maybe better described as CHARADE in the jungle than the RAIDERS knockoff the ads presented it as, the plot of ROMANCING THE STONE feels so slickly assembled to the point that there really isn’t much substance in the film at all and at times it feels like it was designed strictly for the purpose of demonstrating structure insisted on in screenwriting books, many of which didn’t even exist yet. Having said that, there’s not a wasted moment through the entire running time in a way that is genuinely admirable and revisiting it now it’s a very entertaining film which is no easy feat even if there’s still not a lot of meat on the bones. Do you care? Does anyone? It’s still pretty good. At the very least, I don’t regret the five bucks I paid for the Blu-ray at Target. Maybe sometimes it makes sense to study these things.
Shy New York romance novelist Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), who lives all her romantic fantasies within the books she writes, is forced to go to Columbia when her kidnapped sister Elaine (Mary Ellen Trainor) desperately needs a certain treasure map which was mailed to Joan from the country by her recently murdered husband. Once Joan lands she is immediately sent in the wrong direction by villainous Colonel Zolo (Manuel Ojeda) who clearly is after the map himself and soon meets up with bird smuggler Jack Colton (Michael Douglas) who is the only one that can help her get out of the jungle to help Elaine. But soon they are on the run from Zolo and his army as well as antique smuggler Ralph (Danny DeVito) who is trailing her close behind but once Jack becomes aware of the map he soon comes up with his own plan for the two of them to go after what it leads to.
The deleted material included in the special features section on the ROMANCING THE STONE Blu-ray, presented without explanation, is particularly interesting since it seems to consist solely of rough versions of scenes that were later reshot using some of the same dialogue but played completely differently. Certain visual clues in this footage make me wonder if a good amount of the film’s structure in its first half may have been arrived at after the fact in the editing room and reshoots—in particular, lots of information seems to have been consolidated into when Joan and Jack hide out overnight in the downed plane hull to allow for more emphasis on chases and banter at other points so things don’t get overly bogged down in exposition. The final versions of these scenes in the finished film almost inarguably play better than the discarded footage without exception—humdrum scenes involving Joan Wilder and her male book editor have been replaced in the finished film by much snappier material featuring Holland Taylor in the role—getting right to the point in stronger ways, all serving as a reminder that these films don’t just fall from the sky fully formed. As it plays now, ROMANCING THE STONE (written by Diane Thomas although several other writers including Lem Dobbs reportedly worked on it uncredited) wastes no time with its plot and moves startlingly fast with Swiss watch-level pacing that has helped it to age pretty well, playing as continually engaging along with being bolstered by a cast that gives it lots of energy, not to mention the obvious chemistry between the two leads. It’s tight, well-assembled (credit for this pacing should go to editors Donn Cambern and Frank Morriss as well), exciting, constantly moving and continually enjoyable. Even if the building blocks of the structure feel much more apparent to me than it once did the way it pulls that off feels a little like a lost art now when so many films going for the same goals are both dumbed down or drag on interminably past the two-hour mark.
Sure, some of it moves fast enough that it’s probably pointless to ask logic questions. A maintenance man in Joan’s building is killed off early on but you can bet that’s never heard about again. The scenes involving Holland Taylor’s editor, all sharp and funny, seem comprised of dialogue that is at least three-quarters blatant exposition. Even the detour involving the kindly drug runner played by the always enjoyable Alfonso Arau doesn’t pause to let the characters sit down to discuss things just giving it enough time for the bad guys to show up and let them make their getaway (I particularly like Arau pointing out sights in his tiny village during the chase). I’m particularly hazy about the logic behind some of what happens around the 70 minute mark and any suspense the film tries for over what Jack Colton’s real motivation might be for going after the stone (where the title of the film more or less comes from) never amounts to much of anything. And though some of the dialogue is just a little too broad at times like Joan Wilder’s “I went to college,” response to finding marijuana in the downed plane, the chemistry between the characters—all of them, not just the two leads—makes the film endearing, more than it might have been in other hands. Maybe not so politically correct in its portrayal of life in South America (hey, it was the 80s, who cared about political correctness?) but in its own slick style the film achieves exactly what it’s supposed to throughout.
ROMANCING THE STONE opened in fourth place on opening weekend at the very end of March 1984 so maybe the heavily RAIDERS approach to the marketing campaign didn’t get people excited right off the bat but I’m going to assume good reviews and word of mouth resulted in the film playing for months even after TEMPLE OF DOOM arrived in theaters. By the time the big summer guns began to emerge in June it was still hanging around the top ten finally coming in eighth place for the year. A film that knows how to get right to the point in scene after scene, there’s not an ounce of fat in there and it keeps the plot moving, knowing all the right beats to bring out character detail as well. Yes, some of it is a little broad now and, yes, it’s really not a deep film although I can’t imagine anyone wanted it to be. And, yes, this is a for-hire gig for Robert Zemeckis who buries much of the manic Preston Sturges style of the earlier scripts he co-wrote with Bob Gale and directed himself (I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, USED CARS; they also wrote the screenplay for 1941) to make this that much more of a mainstream commercial entertainment. Even the character beats like Colton pining for dreams of the boat he wants to sail away on feel nicely doled out.
The deleted scenes do make me wonder how much of the original material was about Joan Wilder finding her dream man and how much it was meant to tweak that notion since in the end Jack Colton seems to bring Joan Wilder out of her shell as opposed to serving as the rugged fantasy hero she dreams of from her books that will save her in the end. His introduction seems designed to deliberately resemble how the book’s hero ‘Jesse’ appears on the cover of those books but Zemeckis seems all right with tossing away the moment--Turner even seems to play the beat as recognizing the image but the director doesn’t hold on her response. Douglas is even a few beats too late to save her at the climax, arriving just after she’s already accomplished the job herself. It is her story after all and while I’m not sure how interested Zemeckis ever was in any feminist viewpoint at least the movie remembers this much. Not bothering to pause even as the plot winds down (Joan’s sister Elaine is presumably ok at the end, but we just kind of have to assume), the period of time between the middle of the final fight and when the credits roll is less than ten minutes. No point in sticking around, the film seems to be saying. Jack and Joan had fun, you had fun, now let’s go to dinner. Was there a better date movie in 1984? Probably not. Yes, the Zemeckis-Gale scripts offer more in repeat viewings than this does but that’s of minor concern (the overall shallowness of certain Zemeckis films is something that I’m still pondering). Incidentally, when Fox first saw the film they thought so little of it that they fired the director off of his next project for the studio, COCOON and when ROMANCING was a hit he was finally able to get BACK TO THE FUTURE, which he had already co-written with Bob Gale, going elsewhere. Maybe there were more problems in that early cut than we realize but it’s also a reminder that in this business you just never know.
One of the most successful and likable characterizations of Kathleen Turner’s career, revisiting this performance is a reminder of how perfect she would have fit in during Hollywood’s golden age. She pulls off the correct balance between her character’s insecurities and whatever assertiveness pulls out, selling the let-down-her-hair transformation just right. Michael Douglas plays his role as totally confident, ready for big-screen stardom and with no problem in occasionally looking foolish during the climax which manages to make him seem even cooler. Between the two of them, it’s a certain kind of movie star chemistry that just doesn’t happen very much anymore. Danny DeVito, coming hot off TAXI with maybe his first really good Danny DeVito role in a film, gets laughs in practically every moment while Zack Norman (as in, “Zack Norman Plays Sammy in ‘Chief Zabu’”) as Ira gets the right sort of slimy, canny intelligence to his smuggler while getting laughs as well. At one point he has a well-played speech about main bad guy Zolo which implies more characterization than we ever really get from the one-dimensional portrayal but Manuel Ojeda still offers an intriguing presence with relatively little dialogue. Alfonso Arau, also in Zemeckis’ USED CARS, kills in every moment he has like the scene stealer his character is clearly meant to be and Holland Taylor spits out all that exposition in the opening scenes like a total pro.
The very 80s sax courtesy of composer Alan Silvestri (who provides a solid score with hints of his later work for BACK TO THE FUTURE and PREDATOR) that accompanies the end credits reminds me of a girl I once lent my old DVD of the film to who never gave it back. Actually, later on she claimed that I had said she could have it. Maybe I could seek her out to learn the truth, but best to let this one lie (hence my picking up this Blu-ray for five dollars). Anyway, she clearly had a fondness for the film and I’m sure others out there do too. Funny, exciting and fast-moving with endearing lead characters maybe ROMANCING THE STONE is exactly what it should be. ROMANCING THE STONE of course was followed by the non-Zemeckis THE JEWEL OF THE NILE less than two years later which was also a hit but no one seems to remember that film now, Billy Ocean music video aside. A remake has been in the works for some time now and I’ll bet somewhere in the halls over on the Fox lot in Century City it still is. The 80s are long over (thankfully) but somewhere someone tries to keep them alive. ROMANCING THE STONE is the sort of film that people still want to be there as a sort of comfort food, just like whatever Joan Wilder is dreaming about in her Upper West Side apartment. Nothing too wrong with that, I suppose.