Romancing the Stone

One of the funnier moments in Romancing the Stone occurs at the climax, when small-time adventurer Jack Colton (Michael Douglas) turns to romance novelist Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), with whom he has shared an incredible adventure in South America over the last few days, and says to her, “Go to the American Embassy—tell them everything, tell them the truth.”

Now, this is funny, because if she told them the truth, they’d throw her into the loony bin. The adventure that makes up Romancing the Stone is so wildly implausible that you might not believe it, either; but the film is made with such zest and humor you might find yourself wanting to believe in it in spite of itself.

The basic set-up is irresistible: the author of a series of those happily-ever-after romances (Turner is charmingly wide-eyed here, a world away from her femme fatale in Body Heat) finds herself involved in exactly the kind of plot she routinely puts her heroines through. When her sister is kidnapped in Colombia, the kidnappers demand that mild-mannered Joan Wilder bring a treasure map (yes, a treasure map—it’s that kind of movie) to their hacienda or they’ll do nasty things to sis.

I’m not too sure how the sister got involved with the map (it will lead to a fist-sized, heart-shaped emerald stashed deep in a Colombian cave), but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that our heroine travels to Colombia and immediately becomes the target for those who want the map: the kidnappers (Danny DeVito and Zack Norman) and the crooked federales (led by Manuel Ojeda).

She teams up with scrappy, down-on-his-luck wanderer Colton, and a comic/romantic alliance is born in a rainstorm deep in the Colombian jungle. These two go forth into a maze of gaping precipices, rickety bridges, raging rivers, and hungry alligators, all blocking the road to the emerald—and most of the time, they’re being chased by the bad guys.

This wild ride is presented lickety-split fashion, much in the manner of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Rip-offs of Raiders are still being cranked out (Spielberg’s sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, will appear in a couple of months), but Romancing the Stone is probably the best of the lot. This shouldn’t be surprising, because the director of Stone, Robert Zemeckis, is a Spielberg protégé. He co-wrote Spielberg’s only bomb, 1941, and he directed two films under Spielberg’s aegis, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars.

Zemeckis may have learned rapid-fire pacing from Spielberg, but he didn’t quite catch Spielberg’s talent for characterization. Romancing the Stone gets a little mechanized in its contrivances. For instance, in the best adventures of this kind, the sense of danger is very real, and genuinely frightening. Zemeckis and first-time screenwriter Diane Thomas try to give the evil federale a foreboding presence, but the film leans so far toward fun and games that the danger isn’t well established. The absence of a convincing threat makes the film less memorable, and is one of the elements that give Romancing the Stone its almost-but-not-quite quality.

First published in the Herald, March 31, 1984

Give Douglas credit for recognizing that Zemeckis would be a good fit for this, and give them both credit for putting Kathleen Turner in there. Zemeckis immediately went stratosphere-ward with his next movie, Back to the Future, but he needed this box-office hit to get there. Diane Thomas died in a car accident not very long after this movie was released, and before Douglas and Turner made the sequel. I have found no need to re-visit Romancing the Stone, but I bear it some resentment for perpetuating the supposedly jolly trend of high-adventure Raiders imitations, which had already gotten old at this point.

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