With Rough Edges
“The hero that she was writing was not a hero that she could control. He’s a hero with rough edges.” Jewel of the Nile screenwriter Mark Rosenthal is talking about Jack Colton (Michael Douglas), the swashbuckling, snake-killing hero imagined into life (sort of) by romance novelist Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) in Nile and its predecessor, Romancing the Stone. That Jack’s a hero of the flawed kind is key to both films, the first directed by Robert Zemeckis, the second by Lewis Teague. Jack exists to prove a point to Joan that the chivalrous male, however sexy and sweet, can also be neglectful and selfish. Her job is to teach him about love. The gimmick works the first time out, but falls flat in the follow-up.
Jack enters Romancing the Stone in full-on hero mode, freeing Joan from the clutches of a trigger-happy madman. The villain wants a map Joan happens to be carrying, which leads to a priceless green emerald (she must give the map to the gangsters in exchange for her sister, played by Mary Ellen Trainor). When Jack discovers Joan’s map, he concocts a fairly outrageous plan to find the jewel, thus giving Joan more leverage when she confronts the gangsters. Joan overlooks the flaws in this logic that might clue her in to Jack’s motivations.
The development of their coupling is standard at best. She’s the New York gal with esteem issues, he’s the impulsive Indiana Jones wannabe. They bicker in that made-for-each-other kind of way. Jack, though greedy, is still respectful of Joan. And she, after a while, comes to enjoy his impetuousness. “You’re the best time I’ve ever had,” Joan admits to Jack after a particularly hair-raising run from the bad guys. “I’ve never been anybody’s best time,” he responds, appreciating her admiration. The relationship is occasionally entertaining.
Everything changes, however, come round two. The Jewel of the Nile begins with Jack playing tricks on water skis while Joan tries to finish her latest novel. The respectful Jack has reverted to his prattish ways, and Joan is again caught up in work. The setting here is Cannes, at a book festival celebrating Joan’s latest bestseller; Jack is quite peeved at his lady’s popularity. Joan, though, isn’t content to write romance novels anymore and when a mysterious Arab sheik offers her a writing job, she drops Jack like a bag of old socks and heads to the Middle East. Once the chaos starts, Jack is delighted, risking his neck for the woman he momentarily forgot he loved.
Rosenthal notes in the new interviews for Nile that he and co-writer Lawrence Konner wanted to explore what Jack and Joan’s relationship might be like when the initial fires of romance lulled. Would they still find each other so engrossing when, as Rosenthal says, “They have to do the dishes, she [finds] out that he snores”. This possibility is never explored. All we know via those opening scenes is after six months of bliss on Jack’s boat, all quickly turned sour. And yet, the fantasy continues, the one where the hero saves his beloved, with bickering: “You’re unreliable”, “You’re too uptight”, “You invited the basketball team to an intimate gathering”, and on. Until, of course, he sees her dancing in the moonlight (as he did in Stone) and realizes how precious she is.
Douglas, in the Nile featurette, “A Winning Sequel”, tries that old line about how much more there was to this story, and how many directions these characters could go, but it’s not convincing. Nile‘s motivation was to replicate a monster hit by playing on everything enjoyable about that original monster hit. Everything in Nile is of the bigger! better! faster! more! variety. It’s a step back, really, making the previously strong Joan a victim again, removing any lessons in the proper treatment of women Jack learned the first time around.
Everything in Nile is predictable, right down to the romantic final scenes at sunset. Worse, it devolves into offensive stereotyping: Sufi Arabs enjoy sheep humping, and African tribesmen will respond nicely to Jack’s suggestion that he and Joan “Keep smiling, they’ll think we’re from National Geographic”. Director Teague explains that the mid-‘80s “was a more naïve and innocent period than we’re living in right now.” He adds, “There would be more sensitivity today about making a film with a stereotypical Arab villain. One can’t be cavalier or capricious when creating villains that are based on ethnic groups. I certainly would be more careful.”
At least he admits to the problem, which can’t be said of Douglas and Rosenthal, who prattle on about the film’s delights. They do offer brief enlightenments. Douglas talks about his rapport with Stone creator Diane Thomas, who died in car accident in 1985. Rosenthal gets giddy when reminiscing about his first meeting with Douglas when he, with only one credit to his name, impressed the producer with his Nile concept. Turner reveals that she thought Rosenthal and Konner’s original script was weak, and only agreed to be in the film when Thomas was hired to do rewrites.
Alas, these didn’t help Joan. By the time she and Jack exchange vows, we’ve lost all faith that she might discern between the fantasy man and the real life guy who does, in fact, snore and forget to do dishes. Or, in Jack’s case, flies off into jealous rages every, ohh, six months or so.