Film Review: Finding Joe

Earnest attempt to introduce Joseph Campbell’s philosophy looks and feels like an infomercial.

“We’re stimulated by some images and loud noises,” complains author Norman Ollestad in Finding Joe. Ironically, while Ollestad is talking about how we spend too much time in front of the television, he could be talking about the film in which he speaks. Filmmaker Patrick Takaya Solomon obviously loves philosopher Joseph Campbell and he cannot be faulted for having “bad faith.” But Solomon’s attempt to revive interest in Campbell’s work (post-Bill Moyers) is as slickly produced as it is weak in results and will probably not find much of an audience—let alone Joe.

Finding Joe does not profile the late Campbell himself. Rather, the film consists of a series of crosscut “talking-head” interviews about the philosopher’s work. Some of the interviewees are the usual suspects of this sort of production: Deepak Chopra and Tony Hawk, for example. Most of the others are less well-known, less media-savvy writers, thinkers, artists and religious leaders. Interspersed between the interviews are both classic (and very mainstream commercial) movie clips and newly shot footage meant to illustrate the ideas being discussed.

As Western philosophers go, Joseph Campbell was a good one. Thanks to the accessibility of his simple but profound life lessons, he was able to combine and explain Eastern thought and Western mythology for the casual reader. His best tome, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, though published in 1949, is still better than a lot of modern self-help books. Frankly, the most rewarding parts of Finding Joe are those where his written words flash on the screen and provide quiet relief from the rest of the film. Not every aphorism is brilliant (his once-famous “The universe will open doors where there were only walls” sounds pretty boilerplate today), though in fairness to Campbell, Solomon pulls most of these lines out of longer passages and yet they still remain refreshing next to the spoken reinterpretations by the various speakers.

Nearly everything else about Finding Joe is misbegotten. Isaac Sprintis’ New Age-y score is so incessant, it actually distracts from and/or drowns out some of those interviewed. Then again, more than a few of these blissfully centered people are quite annoying and maybe deserve to be drowned out. Not surprisingly, there are many more English-speaking white males represented than any other kind of person. Writer Alan Cohen is one of the most “full of himself”—and overused by Solomon to boot. It doesn’t help that Cohen’s onscreen identification says he is a “Best Selling Author” (one wonders if Cohen insisted on it). Likewise, Akiva Goldsman gets the “Academy Award Winning Screenwriter” moniker and one half-expects the Academy’s ever-present trademark sign to also pop up.

Actually, Goldsman contributes one of the few moving sections when he confesses how he had to confront the abuse he experienced as a child. But even here, Solomon spoils the moment; in an earlier segment, an adult black male and white child actor portray one of Campbell’s lessons while wearing tiger suits and wrestling as the man literally forces meat into the boy’s mouth. What was meant to be inspiring looks like child sex abuse itself—and the racial component is mystifying. Solomon also has the habit of using his actors to depict metaphors in literal terms, thus undercutting the impact of the utterances.

The best (or maybe the worst) thing about Finding Joe is that Solomon films the interviews in a thoroughly competent, almost glossy way and the enactments with the boy actor have the look of a Hollywood children’s movie. This highly professional approach may repel the very kind of viewers the film is trying to attract, which is ironic since Campbell once wrote that you are only a hero if there is someone there to witness your heroic act. Very few may ever witness Finding Joe.