“Finding Joe” doesn’t provide a biography of or critical perspective on late author, mythologist and speaker Joseph Campbell, instead offering an easily digestible introduction to his key ideas. Patrick Takaya Solomon’s docu will likely appeal primarily to the previously converted in initial theatrical/home-format exposure, then enjoy a long life as a workshop primer. Moderately interesting pic opened Sept. 30 in Los Angeles, with other U.S. cities to follow.
After an eyeblink overview of Campbell’s personal history, the globe-trotting docu plunges into the major theme of his life’s work, which was the distillation of all cultures’ essential mythologies into what he termed “the hero’s journey” — a universal odyssey whose primary identified phases (separation, initiation, return) provide the Everyman protagonist with an adventure through adversity from which he or she emerges transformed.
A hefty number of film clips, suggesting either a liberal borrowed-footage budget or lots of studio-connected friends, finds this narrative blueprint translated to popular entertainment in “Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Matrix,” “Batman Begins,” “Rocky,” the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” movies, et al. In a rather precious attempt at further illustration, staged sequences have costumed children play-acting elemental myths on L.A. beaches and streets.
But most of the docu features an array of authorities and celebrities describing Campbell’s ideas and how they have personally effected them. (The majority of those interviewed were either close to Campbell and/or are authors of New Age/self-help books, though the film doesn’t point that out.)
“Slaying the dragon” of one’s own perceived limits to “become the hero of your own life” is a potent metaphor, and advice on how to achieve that by not worrying about rules, status and what other people think is always useful. But being told to “follow your bliss” by vastly successful stars in rarefied fields, like skateboarding mogul Tony Hawk and surfing legend Laird Hamilton, may strike some as having a certain let-them-eat-cake hubris.
Nobody here mentions such everyday potential roadblocks to realizing one’s ideal self as, say, needing to pay the rent or feed your kids; it seems assumed anyone can/should transcend any such limitations if they really, really want to. Are these concepts equally valuable to the individual who doesn’t have a world-class talent or infinite ambition? By omitting any such discussion, “Finding Joe” suggests ordinary lives — that would be most of humanity’s — are mere treadmills that true “heroes” should ignore and/or escape.
Campbell’s career and influence encompass much wider fields of interest than are considered here, despite the pic’s colorful surface. Narrowing its focus to the simplest inspirational gist, with zero insight into the man behind it, “Finding Joe” winds up seeming like an infomercial for a personal-growth program; one half expects a 1-800 number to be listed at the end.
Perhaps Solomon is such an enthusiast he didn’t realize he’d made something nonconverts might perceive as a hard sell akin to those often made by motivational speakers and paid celebrities on behalf of transformative snake-oil products. With nearly a quarter-century having passed since Campbell participated in two documentaries about his work (the same year that he died), surely it’s time for new cinematic studies less sycophantic than this one.
Production values are high.