The first time my parents brought home a VCR that they had rented from a local shop, the also brought home the movie Romancing The Stone. That sentence is so quintessentially mid-80’s that in my memory we are all wearing spandex, Magnum PI t-shirts, and each of us sporting a single glove and / or a Madonna-esque fashion hat while we watched the movie. But that was probably not the case, either. What I do remember was that they probably rented other movies along with that new-to-us VCR, but the only one I remember 30+ years later is Romancing The Stone.
A friend of mine recently said that they had watched it for the first time this year, and hated it, and a part of me suddenly got curious about what didn’t hold up. As a youth, I probably saw this and the sequel a number of times, and my love of Raiders of The Lost Ark sort of embedded in me a love of adventure / treasure hunting stories, that certainly caused me to sit up and take notice of this one. And, at 12, this glimpse into the world of adult relationships in an International setting really appealed to this small town Oregon Boy, where it was so completely foreign to me. I was immediately enamored with all of it, and found there to be a lot in the film that puzzled me, as I tried to understand why these two were falling in love with each other at a time when I was only dimly aware of what it meant to fall in love at all.
It is true, with 2020 eyes, this movie is problematic, a sort of cringey time-capsule, where this document somehow manages to make the mighty Kathleen Turner seem like she is out-of-her element, and needed the help of a man to make it through this horrible experience. There’s some fairly weird scenes that border on the strangeness of the “Ghost Blow Job” from Ghostbusters, which serves no function except to have a racy moment on screen with our leads. It certainly has so much 80’s running through it that, in spite of first-hand memories of the movies, I have to remind myself that it is actually a nearly 40 year old film.
I keep considering the words of Joe Dante himself, who recently has said (in a number of different ways) that every movie ever made needs a warning label on it, that says, “Warning: This Movie Was Made Before Today.” Every film embodies the taboos and mores of a particular time / place / point of view embodied by the creators at that time, and while it isn’t an endorsement or even an attempt to say, “Well, it was just like that, then,” what both he and I am saying is that in 1984, choices were made by people who were thinking to themselves, “What’s going to look good on screen?” rather than wondering for example, “How woke does this movie appear to audiences?”
The film itself is, in many ways, is probably more progressive than a lot of the fare that was being made in 1984, and certainly was one of the few films being made at the time that was written by a woman. As a kid, I think I only really responded to the treasure hunt elements of the movie, which I think is entirely conveyed by the fact that, before this week, the part of this movie I remembered the best is the 15 minute segment where Joan & Jack decide to use the map to find The Stone, which they do find fairly quickly. After which, the movie goes back to where it had been before, with the various romance and kidnapping subplots driving the remainder of the story.
In a way, the movie is a sort of patchwork of different soap-opera style subplots, and in the same way that a lot of soaps all have soap stars as characters in their shows, Romancing The Stone features a romance author getting embroiled in a story that is lifted precisely from her books, so much so that the characters all know her stories and tropes well, and the plot begins to bend toward things she’s seen in her novels before. Even the Stone itself is hidden in a way that is directly lifted from her first novel.
This element of the film isn’t really commented on, but the movie is framed by Joan and her editor reviewing a recently completed novel, and the one at the end is meant to imply that it is the story we have just seen on screen. This frame story suggests that, perhaps, in a sort of Total Recall sort of way, that some – all? – of her experiences in Columbia might be in her head.
Or, perhaps, in the parlance of a different Arnold action flick, she has entered one of her own romance novels? The kidnapping subplot is the pretext to get Joan to Columbia, but Joan’s sister is rarely seen (or heard), and most of what happens has little to do with the kidnapping, and more to do with the map, and The Stone. All three serve as McGuffins, and are only secondary to the primary plot. The film is really about how the people who are all searching for The Stone manage to bring Joan and Jack together by accident, in the fashion of a true romance, like the kinds that Joan writes and Columbian drug lords seem to love.
From the moment Joan gets to Columbia, every experience is something pulled from the kinds of adventure romances that she writes, which is very interesting for a couple of reasons. In the 1980s, one of the few genres of storytelling where women did have any real agency was in a Romance novel. In a romance, a woman can be the lead, and her concerns and interests (and desires) are allowed to be manifest, in whatever way she wants. While these stories are predicated on the idea that you need a man to complete yourself, everything prior to the pairing of the couple at the very end is about revealing how independent the protagonist really is.
She lives alone, fighting off the street vendors every day, a fairly savvy city dweller. Then, Joan gets on a plane and goes to Columbia by herself, a trip she has never done before. She manages to handle herself fairly well, considering a strange thug that comes after her, and when she meets Jack, she dictates the pace of their budding relationship. She’s onto Jack when he is trying to pull fast ones, and in the end, she handles the Columbian thug herself, even though she is calling for Jack’s help the entire time she’s fighting him. She really didn’t need his assistance, but is was nice to see that he did try, anyway.
Even worse, Jack abandons her for a while at the end, leaving her to have to negotiate getting out of Columbia with her sister, by themselves. Considering some of the Columbian government was out to get her previously, one can only imagine how difficult that must have been. Not to mention that Joan’s sister has just had her husband murdered by Columbian gangsters, creating all sorts of difficulties, which would call upon Joan to be the emotional center for her sister after she, herself, has been through the most insane experience of her life. Joan is going to need some time to process this experience, and probably will need some time to make sense of what she’s been through.
Instead, the movie decides to portray her and wistfully looking out windows, thinking about Jack. The final scene is so incredibly torn from the pages of a romance novel that it is unbelievable, and seems to me to be the evidence that she has climbed into one of her novels. Jack abandoned her and her sister, at a time when they really needed his help. Instead, he chases after his fortune, the shallow desire he’s hidden behind the entire film. And, to his credit, he gets his fortune, alligator boots, and all. But the idea that he could return, suddenly, to sweep her off her feet, so they could sail off down the streets of New York now that he can financially support her… and she wouldn’t be angry with him? She wouldn’t have a million other questions for him, all around the problem of, “Why do you suddenly show yourself again, now, mister?” In the final scene, she is still acting like she’s in Columbia, and in many ways, she never left, which is clear in that she is playing the part of a Romance Novel protagonist, and not that or Joan Wilder.
At this early stage of his career, Zemeckis was not yet willing to openly toy with the reality / fantasy presentation of his films, so this movie is not interested in exploring where the line between reality and fantasy is precisely drawn. And as a kid, I sort of missed that, too. I was entirely in the fantasy, not realizing that the movie is about a relationship forming, and not about a treasure hunt that I wanted it to be. But I missed a lot of what was going on in this movie as a young man. While there’s no way that a film like this can hit the same buttons that it did when I was a kid, I can clearly see the elements did speak to me to me, both then and now, which made that experience very enjoyable.