JOE (1970) / Drama

Running Length: 107 minutes
MPAA Classification: R for language, violence, drug use, and strong sexual content and nudity.

Cast: Dennis Patrick, Peter Boyle, Audrey Caire, K Callan, Susan Sarandon, Patrick McDermott
Director: John G. Avildsen
Producers: David Gil, Yorman Globus
Screenplay: Norman Wexler

Joe could have been something. It could have been a film about the kinds of people so fed up with the way things are going that they decide to take matters into their own hands. Joe bravely tries to be that kind of film, but isn’t. What it ends up being is a disappointing and dismissive attempt at pointing out the wrongs in society, doing so with very little impact.

Dennis Patrick stars as Bill Compton, an advertising executive who lives with his family in New York’s Upper East Side. Of late, his daughter Melissa (Susan Sarandon) has been living with her boyfriend Frank, a notable drug dealer in the area, which has caused some friction between her and her family. One day, Melissa overdoses and is sent to the hospital. Enraged, Bill tracks down Frank’s place to retrieve Melissa’s clothes, but when Frank shows up, his temper gets the better of him and he kills Frank in an ensuing brawl.

Panic-stricken, Bill takes refuge in a local bar; a bar that Joe Curran (Peter Boyle) frequents. Joe represents the average hard-working and blue-collar American for his time. He is racist and homophobic and holds contempt for anyone that is different. When Bill arrives, Joe is drunk and delivering his daily monologue on his resentment for the culture that the hippies created. Eventually, Joe strikes up a conversation with Bill and the two get to talking. One thing leads to another and before long, Bill has revealed his secret.

At the time of its release, Joe was hailed as some sort of masterpiece, doing well in areas both critical and commercial. Part of this was largely due to the powerhouse performance of Peter Boyle, who does an exceptional job as Joe. Boyle (who many will know as Frank Barone from the much-loved TV sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond”) was a terribly underused actor, only appearing in a modest number of films until his untimely death in 2006. His acting talents were never rightfully “stretched”, so it’s safe to say that in Joe he gives his best performance. (It was also the performance that broke him into Hollywood.) That being said, I don’t consider a fantastic performance. Boyle does a great job and adequately captures his character’s anti-heroic nature, and he has some riveting scenes, but this is a role meant for a more seasoned of an actor. Boyle gives it his all, but the reason why his performance was so “acclaimed” is because none of the actors that surround him are very good.

First and foremost, the film’s weakest link is Dennis Patrick, an actor whose career must have dissipated immediately afterwards. While Patrick may have the “look” of his character, he is simply not believable in the part. Half of the time he doesn’t even look comfortable. Many of his line-readings are flat and delivered with about as much emotion as that of a wax figurine. This may be contributed to the fact that he was not meant for this part or maybe he’s just not that good of an actor. Susan Sarandon carries all of the depth you’d expect from an actor of her age and skill, but she doesn’t exactly exceed expectations.

Now, not having tangible plot is not always a weakness. (Hell, it’s how Kevin Smith started his career.) Certain films don’t require plot in order to be interesting as long as there are interesting-enough characters and engaging script to hold the audience’s attention. Joe‘s writer, Norman Wexler, has a competent-enough screenplay. (He received an Academy Award nomination for it.) The set-up is intriguing and for the most part, the dialogue holds true, touching on delicate issues that plagued the working class near the end of the 1960s. Wexler’s smartest move – and biggest mistake – is making Joe Curran a supporting character instead of a lead. While Joe is an interesting character, the storyline that Joe is based upon could not work from his point of view. He belongs on the sidelines; there only to motivate Compton into doing bad. A film focusing on his life looks good on paper (as Boyle tried to do later on), but simply wouldn’t be interesting. Joe is a voice, not a person, and Wexler uses him accordingly.

On top of that, the bland direction on John G. Avildsen’s behalf doesn’t do Wexler’s script justice. He only succeeds in giving the film a more deliberate pace and his theatrical approach may cause viewers to lose interest within the first ten minutes. In the end, Joe could have been something, but isn’t. Those are the most positive words that I can say about it.

Final rating: ★★ (out of ★★★★)

© 2012 Stephen Earnest


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