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
2. in real life she’s lonely and bored
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.
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.