Romancing the Stone

I spent much of last night (as one does) thinking about Romancing the Stone, the charming little Kathleen Turner-Michael Douglas action vehicle from 1984. As a kid, I loved the movie, and I still think it holds up surprisingly well. Maybe it was that early love affair with Kathleen Turner’s sideboob that puts this film in the pantheon of 80s touchstone films for me, or maybe I just always wanted to wrestle alligators and sail away on a luxury boat after adventuring through the bush with a girl who looks great even when she’s soaked in filth and sweat.

In the film, dowdy romance novelist Joan Wilder, lonely in New York, receives a mysterious package. Later, a desperate phone call from her sister — kidnapped by an unlikely duo of tomb raiders in Columbia — sends poor Joan Wilder flitting off to Columbia where she becomes embroiled in our little adventure and meets a reluctant savior in Jack Colton. In her hands is a treasure map, desired by both the tomb robbers and the madman Colonel Zolo, working for the Colombian government. Pursued across the country, Joan and Jack race to Cartagena to save her sister. The bad guys get their comeuppance, the good guys win, and everything ends happily ever after.

But, last night, everything clicked into place as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling fan at 3am: The events of the movie didn’t actually happen to Joan Wilder. The whole thing was a brilliant piece of metafiction. I don’t think Joan ever left her New York apartment.

We open up with the last pages of the last book in Joan Wilder’s western-romance series, wherein Angelina (played by Miss March 1981 Kymberly Herrin, and offering us plenty of nice 1984 flesh and shadow-nipple) avenges her family (and dog and Bible) and is saved at the last minute by her long lost love. They’re reunited and are happy again. Forever. Joan Wilder types that last word, sobbing, and bundles up the manuscript for her publisher. She then wanders around the apartment looking for a tissue and, as the camera follows her, we establish that she’s a big name in the romance genre and there are a bunch of these books out in this series of hers. She gets drunk with her cat and passes out and that’s the last time we’re in reality for the rest of the movie.

When Joan wakes up on her couch, we’re in her next book.

A famous author so conclusively ending a series has a bit of a problem they must face. What do you do next? For someone tied down to the same characters, it might be a breath of fresh air to do something very different like having the next book star the author herself, and changing the setting from the wild west to South America. From the get-go, once she wakes up and bustles out to meet her publisher, we’re very clearly in the pages of a novel. Joan receives a mysterious package, the butcher Zolo is stalking around killing her janitor, and we get an outrageous scene in Colombia where her sister is kidnapped by a small child and taken to Danny Devito and his cousin, the madcap art thieves/tomb raiders. Overall, the first big clue that we’re now in a book is that the time is a bit skewed. We have her racing out in the morning to deliver her manuscript and, when next we see her, she’s meeting her publisher at a bar. They’re drinking heavily and scoping out men, and it’s clearly evening. She hasn’t yet handed over the manuscript.

Because she has the treasure map, courtesy of the mysterious package, Joan finds herself going to Colombia to rescue her sister, boards the wrong bus, and her adventure begins in the mountains, far from where she’s supposed to be. Here we get another big clue that we’re in her novel when the scene we saw at the start of the film with Angelina and the cowboy is mirrored. Here Joan Wilder finds herself on the wrong end of Zolo’s gun, and he approaches her with the same sort of menace as the cowboy approached Angelina. Throughout act two here, Kathleen Turner’s wardrobe isn’t too far off from what Angelina was wearing.

Just in the nick of time, Jack Colton appears on the ridge — exactly as the hero of her novels appeared at the end of the prologue to save Angelina. Both that hero and Jack do the fast draw shotgun thing to save the damsel in distress.

Of course, Jack is less a hero and more a shifty fuck, but that’s the theme of this new novel series that Joan Wilder is writing. She’s writing about herself in this situation and shifting to a grittier crime-adventure sort of thing.

Pepe10As her notoriety pops up in improbable places, such as the drug dealing village and that great scene with the druglord’s “Little Mule”, I can’t help but think that this is Joan Wilder’s Lunar Park. A subtle stab at her fans, perhaps, played out with tongue firmly in cheek.

The finale is so over the top it can only be from the pages of a novel. Jack’s wrestling alligators and climbing walls, Zolo loses his hand but pursues Joan and her sister relentlessly, finally making a final lunge — while in flames — and falling to his death in an alligator pit. Everything is somewhat neatly wrapped up and we end with the movie admitting that it was all in her head. Back safe and sound in New York, she hands the Romancing the Stone manuscript to her publisher. We still have the epilogue — the big sailboat going down the streets of the city — but this bookend with the manuscripts being given to her publisher is a classic literary device intended to remind us that we’re still in the book. The actual final page is the movie’s epilogue — Joan and Jack ride off on the deck of the boat as it’s towed down the streets of Manhattan. The boat that’s named, of course, Angelina.

In my mind’s eye, as the credits roll (and, by the way, Joan Wilder is given credit for the original novel the movie is based on — which didn’t exist), Joan is still in her apartment, sobbing, getting drunk with her cat, and about to ruin her career by writing The Jewel of the Nile. (The less said about the sequel, the better.)

2 Comments on “Romancing the Stone