I was looking over this year’s top-grossing documentaries and was shocked to see that within the first five (non-IMAX) titles is “I Am,” Tom Shadyac’s crudely made first-person film of his spiritual rebirth. It occurred to me that this weekend’s new release “Finding Joe” has enough in common with Shadac’s sleeper hit to potentially be a long-tail success as well. “I Am” follows Shadyac, the guy who directed such comedies as “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “The Nutty Professor” and “Bruce Almighty,” in a quest for enlightenment following a cycling accident that left him near dead. He started getting rid of his material assets and sought a more fulfilling life by following his heart rather than his mind, or dollar signs. Mythologist Joseph Campbell might say he woke up and started following his bliss. That’s exactly the message of “Finding Joe,” a motivational commercial in the form of a documentary, which is based on Campbell’s teachings.
The weird thing about “Finding Joe,” which acts like a self-help guide to a spiritual rebirth slightly akin to Shadyac’s, is that it’s not really selling anything on the side (“I Am” leads you to the non-profit “The Foundation for I Am”). There’s no book or organization directly related or promoted, just the work of Campbell, especially “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” and his collaboration with Bill Moyers for PBS, “The Power of Myth.” Producer/director Patrick Takaya Solomon is simply inspired by Campbell’s ideas of the “monomyth” and that need for humans to discover and follow their bliss, and so he has made a glossy feature-length PSA telling us how to live life better. In a way, it’s just Capra’s “You Can’t Take It With You” in talking-head doc form, with testimonials by Deepak Chopra, Mick Fleetwood, Catherine Hardwicke, Rashida Jones, Akiva Goldsman and Tony Hawk (and other no-name authors) filling in for the Vanderhof/Sycamore/Carmichael clan (have fun recasting Hart & Kaufman’s characters with these Joe-finders; I did).
Like the main problem of “YCTIWY,” it would seem theoretically if everyone just dropped out of school to play drums (like Fleetwood) or xylophone (like Ed Carmichael) or quit their job to do something that made them happier, the world wouldn’t run so well. Everyone would be making fireworks or directing “Twilight” movies or blogging for very little pay. There is a certain need for a majority of us to do something we hate in order to make a living and provide for our families, the bare basics as opposed to racking up material things that we can’t take with us. “Finding Joe” (and “YCTIWY”) makes the American Dream sound like an antithesis to the “Ant and the Grasshopper” fable. I think at least Grandpa Vanderhof recognized that some people like being ants. And not just the sort who are fortunate enough to be successful (and work hard) at drumming, acting or skateboarding.
But people love these New Age self-help style documentaries. Aesthetically, “Finding Joe” reminds me a lot of “What the #*! Do We Know?!” (aka “What the BLEEP Do We Know?!”), the hugely popular film about quantum happenstance that Roger Ebert famously praised until he was informed of its true purpose as well as the less than trustworthy backgrounds of its “expert” interview subjects. This is a polished and flashy film complete with narrative enactments inspired by myths and multiple montages of film clips showing how “Star Wars,” “The Matrix,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “Rocky” and others follow parallel structures based upon the classic hero’s journey plots. To that end it may appeal to some fantasy and sci-fi movie fans, but that audience is better off with Morgan Spurlock’s positive new doc “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope.”
Mostly this should be viewed as a film that sells a fantasy (as in the genre) form of spirituality where “What the…” did the same with science fiction. I can’t wait for the doc that sells enlightenment through horror film tropes.
“Finding Joe” is now playing in Los Angeles with other cities to follow soon.
Recommended If You Like: “What the #$*! Do We Know?!”; “I Am”; “You Can’t Take It With You”