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Romancing the Stone

I don’t think I’ve seen ROMANCING THE STONE since the ‘80s. I’ve been curious to rewatch it forever because it’s one of those things that was huge at the time that hasn’t survived as much in the cultural memory as other things. Like, maybe I didn’t study the crowd scenes enough, but I didn’t notice Kathleen Turner’s character Joan Wilder in READY PLAYER ONE. I suppose because this appealed a little more to the parents of the kids now in charge of the world’s nostalgia. But it’s directed by Robert Zemeckis, who I tend to like, so when I heard that my friends at the podcast The Suspense Is Killing Us were doing a Patreon bonus episode about the ROMANCING THE STONE/JEWEL OF THE NILE duology it prompted me to finally get to it.

Kathleen Turner (who’d only been in BODY HEAT and THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS previously) stars as Joan Wilder, Waldenbooks Romance Author of the Year winning author of Love’s Wicked Kiss, who we meet just as she’s completing her latest novel, as depicted through a re-enactment with her first person voiceover. She imagines her heroine Angelina as March 1981 Playboy Playmate of the Month Kymberly Herrin (GHOSTBUSTERS blowjob ghost, BEVERLY HILLS COP II, ROAD HOUSE, ZZ Top “Legs” video), but our glimpses of the rugged hero who rescues her look suspiciously like Michael Douglas.

I get kind of annoyed by these depictions of writing as somebody just making something up from front to back and then being done with it, but I have to remind myself it used to be something closer to that for many writers since, like Joan here, they had to write the whole damn thing on a typewriter. I can’t even fathom it! I like that she’s in tears as she finishes her book – the idea of her being so emotionally wrapped up in the fictional events she made up is funny/cute, and it also captures the elation of having completed a large creative undertaking.

The gimmick of this story is that

1. she famously writes about passionate love and globetrotting adventure

and yet

2. in real life she’s lonely and bored

but also

3. CRAZY ADVENTURE AND ROMANCE ARE ABOUT TO FALL INTO HER LAP! Can you believe it?

She doesn’t notice at first, because it comes in the mail, in the form of a weird map sent by her brother-in-law. Then her apartment gets ransacked and her sister Elaine (introducing Mary Ellen Trainor, THE GOONIES, LETHAL WEAPON, THE MONSTER SQUAD, ACTION JACKSON, DIE HARD, RICOCHET, etc.) calls because she’s been kidnapped and they’re gonna kill her if Joan doesn’t bring the map to Cartagena.

Some movies have the premise that outsiders might be too soft for the roughness of New York City, this one goes with you are pampered living in New York City and won’t know how to handle other countries. I like that when Joan’s publisher pal Gloria (Holland Taylor, THE TRUMAN SHOW, BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC) tells her she won’t be able to handle it she says she knows that, but it’s her sister, so she’s gonna have to do it anyway.

It’s true, she’s in a little over her head traveling by herself, and ends up on the wrong bus on the advice of a stranger she doesn’t know is the murderous Colonel Zolo (Mexican movie and TV star Manuel Ojeda), following her and trying to get the map. Also it could be argued to be bad tourist behavior when she bothers the driver about where they’re going and he gets distracted and crashes into a Land Rover. She gets stranded in the jungle and earns the ire of the vehicle’s owner, exotic bird smuggler Jack Colton (Douglas, already known for Streets of San Francisco and THE CHINA SYNDROME, among other things, but this really made him into a major movie star), who she argues with but pays to guide her to Cartagena. As is standard in a story like this she wore inappropriate shoes, so he machetes the heels off without permission (see also: AMERICAN NINJA).

He’s surprised to find that people are following and trying to kill her. When he asks, “Who are you?” she innocently says, “I’m a romance novelist.”

As this is a jungle adventure movie, it obviously has a part where they go down a waterfall, and a part where they need to cross a ravine but the rope bridge is falling apart. Rather than the standard routine of being pushed into doing a scary thing by the man, Joan takes a deep breath and tries to cross the bridge while Jack isn’t paying attention to her. I like the execution of her accidental Tarzan swing when the bridge collapses. There’s also a great stunt – the famous one, I assume, since it’s about the only thing I remembered of the movie – when they fall and slide down a muddy cliff. Kind of a cousin to the underground waterslides we see in so many ‘80s movies. I know from a documentary I’ll be reviewing soon called STUNTWOMEN that this was a favorite stunt of famed Lynda Carter Wonder Woman double Jeannie Epper, also seen in 2004’s DOUBLE DARE. The stunt coordinator was Vince Deadrick Jr., who also did AVENGING ANGEL and often doubles Jeff Bridges.

There are some more modern goofy tangents like when they take shelter in the wreckage of a crashed pot plane (with skeletonized pilot in Grateful Dead t-shirt) and the kind of obvious but funny joke of local thugs capturing them for a dangerous drug smuggler guy named Juan (Alfonso Arau, EL TOPO, THE WILD BUNCH, THE THREE AMIGOS, director of LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE) but he recognizes her as his favorite author and welcomes them as guests. His henchmen are impressed when he points out who she is, because he loves her books so much he reads them out loud to them. Also he has a retractable jump used to jump over a river during chases so there’s a total Dukes of Hazzard type scene.

Not to be backhanded, but I think my favorite part of the movie is the inciting kidnapping. Elaine is getting into her convertible, not paying attention to the little kids playing on the street, completely oblivious to one of them spinning and then throwing a bolo at her. He tosses her in her trunk and tears away in the car. There’s at least one shot where you can see on blu-ray that it’s an adult woman driving the car, but still, it’s a burst of “you don’t see that every day” mayhem.

The kidnappers, Ralph (Danny DeVito, who was in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, produced by Douglas) and his cousin Ira (Zack Norman, RAGTIME), are jerks, but played for laughs and rascally semi-likability. DeVito talks similar to how he does as the Penguin in BATMAN RETURNS, and there’s a part where they’re leaving a cave and he says, “Now move it before Batman comes home!” I haven’t checked if that’s on IMDb trivia yet.

When I reviewed RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK: THE ADAPTATION – that underground phenomenon where kids tried to remake their favorite movie in the days before you had home video to reference – I noted that it was lucky RAIDERS was the movie they were into and not ROMANCING THE STONE, because nobody would be excited to watch it now, or remember the original in enough detail to compare. Zemeckis is working in a similar idiom with treasure maps, jungles, world travel, tough guy adventurers, foreign bad guys, double crosses, stunts, wisecracks, bickering. But one of these movies – not this one – also throws in period settings and involves a supernatural element with A+ special effects and also has transcendently good action and stunt sequences paying nostalgic homage to cliffhanger serials while imbuing them with a new momentum and energy.

As I said up top I think ROMANCING appealed more to adults than kids, but if it was more adult it was due to the absence of imaginative elements, and not the presence of additional sophistication. I think what actually does make this different in a good way is that it legitimately comes from a female perspective. Douglas is top-billed, but it’s Joan’s story. It starts with her, it’s her sister who’s in trouble, and she takes the initiative to help her, only hiring him when she has no other choice. And of course there’s the wraparound of her being a writer finding inspiration and love. He’s a good character but he’s the guy painted on the cover to fulfill the woman’s fantasies. That’s different for this type of movie.

Notably, ROMANCING was both conceived and written by a woman, Diane Thomas. I read that she was working as a waitress when she sold her script to Douglas, but my hunch is that it was just how she supported herself and not the capacity in which she pitched him on it. Unfortunately her only other credit is for creating the characters for the sequel, because she tragically died in a car accident a year and a half after the movie came out. She skipped out on the sequel while working for Spielberg on drafts of ALWAYS and the unused haunted mansion version of INDIANA JONES 3.

(If IMDb is to be believed, Lem Dobbs [THE HARD WAY, DARK CITY, THE LIMEY, HAYWIRE] and Howard Franklin [QUICK CHANGE] did uncredited rewrites. It also lists Dobbs as an uncredited stunt man!?)

They also got a woman to write the novelizations. Catherine Lanigan is a prolific author of romance novels, including many published by Harlequin and one that was turned into a Hallmark movie, but she still uses the somewhat misleading tag “Author of Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile” on her covers. The books are credited to Joan Wilder, and ROMANCING has a straight up romance novel lusty painted cover with a model who is clearly not Kathleen Turner (it’s extra cool if it’s the Angelina from the opening scene, but I’m not sure).

As I mentioned in my COCOON review, 20th Century Fox thought the rough cut of ROMANCING THE STONE sucked so bad they fired Zemeckis from COCOON, but then it was such a hit Universal let him make his risky pet project BACK TO THE FUTURE, which came out against COCOON and was a bigger hit. Whoops. I guess they didn’t recognize the value of a movie that is technically a romantic comedy starring a woman, that even has “Romance” in the title (in pink!), but doesn’t seem “girly” enough to scare off all the men terrified of exposure to traditional femininity. Douglas captures the dirty-long-hair-sleeveless-vest-out-in-the-jungle-rugged-but-not-a-bodybuilder vibe of guys like Kurt Russell. Ruggedly handsome but not overdoing it. I bet for many heterosexual couples seeing this movie he fit right into the middle of what could be a bad boy fantasy for the wife and a dude the husband would feel cool having beers with. I suspect its success comes from that balance combined with the freshness and chemistry of the leads – both Turner and Douglas are at peak attractiveness and are pretty funny and good at bouncing off each other in a Moonlighting sort of way.

Turner apparently had a hard time and felt Zemeckis cared more about camera moves than actors, but from my perch in the future it seems very traditional and non-whiz-bang compared to the energetic, innovative work he became known for a few years later. He was still warming up. I don’t think ROMANCING THE STONE ranks high for the films of this director or this era, but I enjoyed watching it again.

P.S. As discussed in the BACK TO THE FUTURE review, this was quite an era for movie logo design. Here’s an interview with Nina Saxon, who did the titles for both.

This entry was posted on Monday, September 14th, 2020 at 10:54 am and is filed under Reviews, Romance. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “Romancing the Stone”

  1. My mother loves this movie, mostly for it being an adventure movie than a romance, but I never saw it in full, I think. Maybe when I was very young. But it’s weird how semi-forgotten this is. I can imagine that there is a whole generation of movie watchers who might have no idea that this big box office hit of the 80s exists!

  2. I rewatched this awhile back and while I always liked it, I think more of it now. Not just one of the best romantic comedies from that era, but it’s actually fucking meta-text genius going on if you think about it.

    I would argue that the movie plot-wise is precisely like the sort of usually written-quickly romantic adventure aimed-at-women pulp books that the Joan Wilder types would dish out, the readership of sorts that the homey nerd Wilder pre-Colombia would eat up. I mean obviously the movie in that opening tips the idea of Michael Douglas being Jesse the rogue adventurer-with-heart-of-gold she dreams for (and that ending when he does of course show up and happy ever after ending) but I think of the other tropes at play here: treasure hunting, globe trotting, gangsters, evil scary foreigners, man-eating animals, etc. The heroine isn’t a power fantasy like an Indiana Jones, but more “what if regular boring me got into such a nightmare mess, what would I do? How would I get out?” Etc. Wilder literally walks into one of her own books.

    I would say the sophistication is less the tropes themselves than in the overall subtext presentation without wink wink-give-me-a-cookie way that many movies might. Or I’m reading too much into it, but that’s the half the fun of movie criticism.

    Anyway I like Alan Silvestri’s music work here, especially that stinger whenever the villain shows up. Music cue, you know who’s about to show up.

    As to why it’s not thought of more now? I have a thought:

    Came out same summer as TEMPLE OF DOOM, which while super successful also let down folks who expected RAIDERS 2 basically to be better than it was. Sometimes people/critics gravitate towards/rally around a film similar in tone/genre around the same era, use it to bash (even if just subconsciously) the one they’re not necessarily happy with. Add the romantic comedy angle to RTS, it felt like a fresh angle to that Indy-sorta treasure hunting story around that time. Just a thought.

    So yeah this, BACK TO THE FUTURE, and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. 3 home runs in a row for Zemeckis. And it’s all been downhill from there (sure he made some good shit after 1988, but that period was peak Zemeckis. Hell I’ve argued before 1980s Zemeckis, its like him and John Carpenter were having a race to see who was Howard Hawks’ successor.)

  3. Hey Vern,

    The “rugged hero” at the beginning is actually Ted White, who played Jason in F13: The Final Chapter.

  4. Scratch that. He was the guy that “stole my Bible!” Not the rugged hero.
    Pardon my wonky memory.

  5. I had no idea this was a forgotten, or never seen/liked movie. I loved it at the time and still enjoy it a lot. It’s very much a romance novel done for the big screen. I’m not sure, but I think it may have been the reason I started reading romance novels at age 15. Many, many years later and I still read them.

  6. This and JEWEL OF THE NILE are on TV pretty often in the UK, but I truth I think it’s the Billy Ocean tie-in video for the later that has endured the most in pop culture.

    Eddy Grant had a less famous but still somewhat successful eponymous tie-in single for this (which weirdly does not feature in the film, not even over the credits) and he thanked Douglas for giving him a hit when I saw him 12 years ago.

  7. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If Hollywood could bottle this movie, they would. It’s got it all: exotic locations, crackerjack pace with room for the actors to breathe, two movie stars at the top of their game with incredible chemistry, actually funny jokes that don’t detract from the plot, a couple of bang-up set-pieces, and a romantic yet action-packed vibe that works equally well for men, women, and children. (I certainly loved it as a kid anyway.) It’s the perfect Hollywood product. They’d make a hundred of ’em a year if they ever managed to perfect the recipe. Unfortunately, the merely okay JEWEL OF THE NILE proved that there’s no formula for this shit. You just gotta hope for the magic to happen.

    “I get kind of annoyed by these depictions of writing as somebody just making something up from front to back and then being done with it…”

    I don’t want to brag, but that is kind of how it works for me. I edit as I go, so when I get to the last line, I’m generally more or less done. I’ll go through one more time and do a tweak here and there but my first drafts are never very different from my final drafts. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that I learned how to write on a typewriter?

    And I have definitely brought myself to tears with the genius of my own work. Happened just a few weeks ago when I finished my new novel. If the writer doesn’t feel it that deeply, what chance does anyone else have?

    Basically, I AM Joan Wilder. THE Joan Wilder.

  8. That “You’re Joan Wilder?”scene still makes smile and laugh out loud even after all these years.

  9. Weird that this one is half-forgotten and the inferior BACK TO THE FUTURE is ubiquitous. My mother used to have the novelisation. It was a lot raunchier than I was expecting from the movie.

  10. Interesting point that this was a big deal at the time but, for whatever reason, lacks the staying power of so many other big 80s genre movies had. I saw this a bunch on VHS as a kid (my family was into it) but I doubt I’ve Re-watched ever again after 1990.

    The sequel, Jewel of the Nile, sucks. That’s one of the hardest drops in quality for a sequel that I ever saw, and even as an adolescent who liked the first one I thought the sequel stunk. It’s up there with Poltergeist 2 and City Slickers 2 in the genre of sequels-we-didn’t-need-and-just-feel-off.

  11. David J. Moore interviewed Wayne Crawford for Coming Soon (Link in my name) in case this leads you toward watching Jake Speed.

  12. The Billy Ocean song and video for When the Going Gets Tough is so much catchier than Jewel of the Nile deserves.

  13. Hoping you’re doing Jewel too. I don’t mind the sequel. It has some good action even if it’s not Zemeckis and even though they have to break them up to try to recreate the romance. Considering the problems with the production in Morocco including crew deaths and blackmailing government officials, I suspect that compromised the final cut.

    I’m fascinated by the information they planned a third Colton/Wilder called The Crimson Eagle. And what’s this about a haunted house Indiana Jones?

  14. This is a fun one. I had seen Body Heat by this time, so I was more aware of who Kathleen Turner was than Michael Douglas. It was one my mother really enjoyed and surprisingly I think my father did too. They liked the quick dialogue, brisk pace and likable characters (both were raised on the movies from the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” and I think Romancing the Stone is a great callback to that era).

    They should have stopped at this one, though. Jewel of the Nile had a great title, and that was it.

  15. Back in the days before the net we didn’t know much about upcoming movies before we went to see them or read a review in a newspaper. And it’s still funny to think that an awful lot of fans of ROMANCING/JEWEL thought they were getting a third entry when they went to see WAR OF THE ROSES.

  16. Haw Haw…..yeah, in the category of “SUCCESSFUL COLLABORATORS RE-TEAMING FOR A FOLLOW UP YOU TOTALLY DIDN’T EXPECT” Douglas/Turner/De Vito returning for the 3rd time after 2 lightweight adventure romps to give you one of the blackest and easily nastiest comedies is right up there. Alongside Scott and Crowe reuniting after the epic Gladiator for some rom-com in a French vineyard piffle. Or DiCaprio and Winslet coming together (or should that be coming apart) in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD after that “Boat Movie”. Or Keanu and Sandra for some time travel romance after freaking SPEED!!! Or De Niro and Pacino following up Godfather 2 and HEAT with an abomination WHICH SHALL NOT BE NAMED.

    Am looking forward to THE WATERDANCE remake with Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White playing paraplegics in a home.

  17. It totally works as a thematic capper to the trilogy, though. It’s about how the things that initially entice us about another person are often the very things that drive us away. In the first part, we see how opposites attract. In the second, we see how they struggle to stay together after the initial thrill wears off. In the third, we see the catastrophe that happens when they try to force it. Cut out the scenes in WAR OF THE ROSES where they meet and the film could easily be the story of what happened when Jack and Joan tried to settle down and no longer had the external thrill of adventure papering over the cracks in their relationship.

  18. Maj, with the slightest of tweaks, your post could perfectly encapsulate Linklater’s BEFORE trilogy.

    I loved SUNRISE & SUNSET so much, MIDNIGHT just about broke my heart

  19. Seconded and thirded in:

    JOAN WILDER???? THEEEE JOAN WILDER?!?!I HAVE YOUR BOOOOOOKS!!!

    My sister and I have quoted that for 35 years.

    Two honorable mentions that we also both still quote randomly:

    AWWWW, MAN… THE DOOBIE BROTHERS BROKE UP!

    LOOK AT THOSE CHOPPAHS!!!

  20. I actually watched this for like the fiftieth time last night, which is why I can say with some confidence that the line is “Look at those snappers!” But yes, that is one of (if not THE) most memorable lines in this movie that’s packed with memorable lines.

    “What is all this?”
    “All this? About five to life in the States, a couple of centuries down here.
    “Oh, marijuana.”
    “You smoke it?”
    “I went to college.”

    “That ain’t a bridge. That’s goddamned pre-Colombian art!”

    “Now, I ain’t cheap, but I can be had.”

    “Those were Italian.”
    “Now they’re practical.”

    “I’ll kill you, goddammit, if it’s the Fourth of July!”

    “You’re the best time I’ve ever had.”
    “I’ve never been anybody’s best time.”

    “I had it in my hands, Ira. These hands that are going to break every bone in your body…later.”

    (Speaking of Ira, I feel like he’s an underrated character of a type I’m not quite sure I’ve seen elsewhere. Yes, he is a bad guy and a scumbag, but I have literally never seen a hostage exchange where afterward the villain is like, “Well, that concludes our business. Have a nice day.” But then he goes and fucks over his own cousin. He’s complicated. I like it.)

    And of course pretty much everything Juan says is hilarious, though I am partial to “See that tree? My brother planted that tree!”

    This movie falling into semi-obscurity is one of the reasons our society is descending into chaos.

  21. Also I like how parts of the score sounds like you’re racing on one of the beach tracks in Mario Kart.

  22. I like to use “and shot my dog” as a response to a list of horrible things.

  23. The reveal of Juan’s “mule” is classic too!

  24. Yknow… I’ve easily seen Romancing The Stone at least 5 dozen times… but I’ve never once seen Jewel Of The Nile.

    And I’m one of 17 people that actually saw Teen Wolf Too in the theater.

  25. I saw this in theatres and I was probably a little too young, but I loved ‘Raiders of the Ark’ and my dad probably assumed it was just another version of that. Even though all the sexual innuendos flew over my head at 7 years old, I remember loving the movie. I revisited it for my podcast a few years ago and it holds up really well, but I confess it has a childhood sweet spot for me. I love how it plays around with the romantic novel tropes and never takes itself too seriously but builds up real stakes as well. Douglas and Turner have great chemistry and you want them to get together, which is necessary. Devito is great as both comedic relief and an antagonist, and I think, Zolo is a great intimidating villain something lacking in a lot of big studios movies today. It is funny but also has great action sequences. I love the set pieces and cinematography. I know my co-host who did not see it as a kid was more with Vern’s stance, so I get nostalgia may be why I love this so much. It is one of my favourite movies of the 1980s and I am not ashamed of that.

  26. The dance scene, after he cleans up. The white outfit. His little groovy hip and arm movements.

    I was five. My parents took me to the drive-in. I have been chasing that image of cool ever since.

  27. This movie was such a cultural phenomenon for like 6 months when it came out and then was gone and mostly forgotten, when it deserves to be a mid-tier classic, certainly a few rungs down from Raiders but way above most movies of its time. I like to call my Jeep “my little mule” in my best Juan voice and people have no clue what I am talking about, or maybe they think I am just being racist. The movie deserves better.

  28. Not sure how my interview with Wayne Crawford made it to the comments, but nobody on planet earth was interested in it until he passed away, which is a shame because I liked Wayne, and I’m a big fan of JAKE SPEED. Also, Romancing the Stone is my #1 favorite movie of all time, and it was also the holy grail of my soundtracks my entire life until I found a German bootleg of it in a tiny little store in New York in the summer of 1999. It’s a story to tell. Eddy Grant (Electric Avenue) did the theme song for this film, but for whatever reason the song was dumped in a throwaway scene at Juan the Bellmaker’s swanky pad. When he opens the doors, you can hear the song “Romancing the Stone” (great, catchy song, even better than Billy Ocean’s “When the Going Gets Tough”) playing in the background. It would have made a great end title song, and since there was no official soundtrack release until Varese put it out in 2002, it’s a weird thing that they didn’t include Eddy Grant’s theme song on the disc. You’ve got to find that song on his greatest hits album. Anyway. Jack Colton is my spirit animal.

  29. I used to watch all the RAIDERS ripoffs in the 80s, from FALCON’S GOLD via JAKE SPEED to THE FURTHER ADVANTURES OF TENNESSEE BUCK, but the only one I felt I needed to buy – besides ROMANCING and JEWEL – were GWENDOLINE.

  30. The Undefeated Gaul

    September 21st, 2020 at 1:43 pm

    I need to go back and watch both of these. I used to love them as a kid but was actually way more into JEWEL OF THE NILE than ROMANCING. It just seemed more fun; the stuff with the fighter jet, fighting the tribal warrior and little me thought the move where Douglas comes swinging in and kicks the villain into the fire at the end was pure badass. Also I loved, LOVED, the Billy Ocean song. I remember way less of the first one, mostly just that at one point the villain gets his hand bitten off by a crocodile and you get a real good look at the bloody stump, which scared the hell out of me. I’m really curious about taking a look at these at an adult and see what I make of them, which shots I remember and how I view all this stuff now. I’ve no doubt I’ll have a very different view now on which of them is the better film.

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