xoWeekend: Let's Watch "Romancing the Stone"

Sundays demand the kind of movie that will clear your mental clouds and buoy your heart without asking anything in return, like rapt attention or postponed bathroom breaks or, dare I even speak it, putting on shoes.

Aug 24, 2014 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

"My So-Called Life"'s Angela Chase once said, "There's something about Sunday night that really makes you want to kill yourself."
 
Her sentiment might be an angst cake frosted with a glop of hyperbole, but it's hard to deny that Sunday -- or whatever day falls before your next retail shift, school day, morning with the kids, etc. -- has a permeating eau de doom.
 
It is crucial on these days to treat your brains tenderly and hunker down before the thunderstorm of responsibility rolls in. Put your softest shorts on your behind. Eat snacks of the perfect shape and size: cucumbers cut to your exact specifications, only those Cool Ranch Doritos covered in extra fairy dust fished from the bottom of the bag.
 
I believe firmly that whatever makes your Sunday a little indulgent deserves to be done with panache. 
 
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My Sunday snack of choice only tastes proper when I eat it from my goldfish bowl.

 
This is what makes Sunday the best day for streaming a movie directly to your bed or, if you're feeling really athletic, your couch.
 
Sundays demand the kind of movie that will clear your mental clouds and buoy your heart without asking anything in return, like rapt attention or postponed bathroom breaks or, dare I even speak it, putting on shoes.
 
"Romancing the Stone" (1984) is an ideal Sunday companion.
 
For a movie whose first ten seconds includes a ludicrous shot of a nipple poking through a wet white camisole, "Romancing the Stone" is the rare bagel chip among the Chex Mix of 1980s romantic comedies.
 
I can't understand why this movie isn't up there with "When Harry Met Sally" and "Pretty in Pink" in the romantic comedy Hall of Fame. Maybe because it belongs to the somewhat abandoned genre of the romance-action-comedy, like my all-time favorite movie "Foul Play"?
 
I can only assume that the number of alligators (20+), severed hands (1), weird Michael Douglas dance scenes (1, which is one more than the world requested), and gunshots (approx. one billion) somehow knock it out of consideration against a dozen more beloved films about magazine editors having it all.
 
"Romancing the Stone" is particularly worth watching now because main character Joan Wilder, romance novelist, could be the patron saint of the Internet.
 
In her first scene she wears flannel, talks to her cat Romeo, and treats said Romeo to a fancy meal while she downs a tiny bottle of vodka in celebration of finishing her latest project. Lest you think I am joking about how much one can identify with Joan Wilder's home habits, please examine Exhibit A: Joan in her house typing in blue flannel with weird hair, and Exhibit B: me in my house typing in blue flannel with weird hair. 
 
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Exhibit A

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Exhibit B

She is my people.
 
Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner, at her husky-voiced best) is sucked into both hijinks AND misadventure when her sister finds herself knee-deep in doodoo and Joan must rush to Colombia on a rescue mission.
 
Before long she teams up with Jack Colton (Michael Douglas) to evade a number of pursuers, hunt for a treasure hidden deep in the jungle, and bring her sister to safety.
 
I'm sure I don't have to explain that some pants feelings develop between Joan and Jack, as per the Romantic Comedy Odd Couple Act of 1939, but this movie's love story manages to hit all the required notes while playing a subtly different tune. 
 
I called my mom this week because "Romancing the Stone" is one of the only romantic movies I ever remember her recommending.
 
This is a woman who sighs with disgust if you even mention "The Notebook." I was curious what it was about this particular film that appealed to her so much.
 
Was it Michael Douglas?
 
"Blugh," she said, which is the best I can do to spell a totally barfy, dismissive noise. "He's nothing great. I really liked her! She wasn't the typical movie girl. She was spunky. And that movie had a good plot. And it took place somewhere else!"
 
I agree with my mom, but it's worth pointing out that the setting of the movie also causes some issues.
 
As with so many comedies in the 1980s (and a good deal from today) the price viewers must pay to enjoy all that jungle adventure is sitting through some hamfisted jokes that rely heavily on cultural stereotypes.
 
Joan steps off the plane in Cartagena into what looks like a Fox News fever dream of Latin America, stocked with cartoonish poor people and unnecessary farm animals. Colombia, from the point of view of this movie, is almost exclusively peopled with corrupt paramilitary members and gun-toting drug lords.
 
And, of course, even a movie that takes place primarily in a South American country manages to revolve entirely around white people. 
 
Revisiting comedies with a few decades or even just a few yeas of perspective is often like playing a game of Problematic Representation Bingo, and it's difficult to know how to balance my nostalgia and appreciation for the good parts of these movies with the stuff that makes me cringe. Or just plain yell at the screen, in the case of Long Duk Dong in "Sixteen Candles," or the transphobic jokes in "Crocodile Dundee" and "Ace Ventura."
 
When pop culture lets me down, I think about a quote from an article published last year on the controversy around Blurred Lines. Music critic Lindsay Zoladz says, "...there's this assumption that you can't simultaneously be critical of something on a political level but also enjoy it on a more aesthetic level. And sometimes I believe that! But sometimes I don't!"
 
I suspect that many women, people of color, and other groups not typically well-represented in pop culture have honed an ability to pick and choose what we take from our entertainment because we're used to patchworking together emotional resonance from stuff that isn't written by us or for us.
 
Music, movies, TV, books -- most of what's universally lauded as good is written by men about men, and anyone outside that group has learned to cobble together the bits that speak to our hearts and brains and funny bones.
 
Creators of romantic comedies often serve up fantasies that begin and end with a love story, because they assume that is what women want to see. Getting the dreamboat is good and all, but swashbuckling and machete-wielding and jungle-trekking and otherwise saving the day are just as much the fluff our daydreams are made of.
 
"Romancing the Stone," for all its flaws, at least gives me Joan Wilder.
 
If I clip her character out of the movie like a coupon, I carry away with me a romantic adventurer who is often in distress, but at least this damsel gets to do some saving.
 
Last winter, as I was leaving the New York Historical Society on an exceptional Sunday when I both put on pants and walked those pants out the door and to a cultural institution, a voice rumbled from across the lobby and froze me in my tracks.
 
There was no amount of elaborate pantomime I could do behind my purse to explain to my husband a) who Kathleen Turner is and b) that she was at our eleven o'clock, but I was momentarily made a little weak in the knees seeing Joan Wilder, romantic heroine, in the flesh.
 
Michael Douglas is the one who was supposed to make me swoon, but I highly doubt he would've had the same effect on me.
 
That's because romance is just as much about being someone else as it is smooching someone else.
 
Do any of you love Joan as much as I do? Perhaps more importantly, do any of you agree that Michael Douglas looks like a snapping turtle? Are there other romantic movies with spunky heroines that treat cultural issues with more finesse?
 
["Romancing the Stone" is streaming via Netflix and is often available on demand on cable movie channels. There's a little topless canoodling, a little cartoony violence, and some South American stereotyping.]