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Sunday, July 02, 2017

Joe

Social historians will tell you that by 1970, the hippie movement had gone from peace, love, and drugs to just drugs. And there was a strong, significant backlash, mostly depicted in political cartoons as workers who wore hardhats, trying to uphold the red, white, and blue. This is the conflict in Joe, which I had never seen but decided to check out after the death of its director, John G. Avildsen, a few weeks ago.

Joe is a bit disjointed. The first act is a kitchen-sink drama, set in a crummy apartment occupied by Melissa (Susan Sarandon), and her dealer boyfriend Frank (Patrick McDermott). He has no redeeming qualities. Needing $50 to get a big score, he sells vitamin pills to naive teenagers.

Sarandon has an OD, so her father, an advertising executive (Dennis Patrick) goes to get her stuff and encounters McDermott. In a rage, he accidentally kills him. He wanders out in a daze to a bar, and there's where me meet Joe (Peter Boyle).

"The niggers," are his first words. He blows off steam in the bar with a litany of conservative complaints about blacks, gays, the young, and liberals. "Do you know 42 percent of liberals are queer?" he asks the room. He finally says he'd like to kill a hippie. Patrick, up until now silent, says, "I just did." Joe takes him seriously for a moment, but then realizes he's joking. But when news of a dead junkie right near the bar comes up, he puts two and two together, and suddenly the working stiff and the executive become best buddies.

For much of this, Joe is actually funny. It's most comparable to All in the Family, which would debut in just a year. I have no idea if Norman Lear used any of Joe to create Archie Bunker, but the two are very similar, down to where they live--Astoria, Queens--and having a nice but ditzy wife (Joe's is played by K. Callan). When Joe invites Patrick and his well-heeled wife to dinner (they order in Chinese) it's a marvelous one-act play. Joe takes Patrick into his basement to show him his gun collection, and we know that this is not just a comedy of manners.

Sarandon runs off, finds out her father killed her boyfriend, and goes missing. Patrick and Boyle visit her haunts, and the comedy continues. They visit a place where they must sit on the floor and eat miso soup, or a bar where hippies immediately start teasing them. But Patrick has McDermott's stash, so the hippies invite them up for a party. It turns into an orgy (or as Boyle pronounces it, an or-gy with a hard "g"). The two older men try pot and even have sex with the girls. But when their wallets get stolen, they've ticked off the wrong hardhat.

Joe, like All in the Family, appealed to both sides of the spectrum. While Archie Bunker was a satire of conservatives, many watched believing in his every word. Certainly Joe was written as an examination of the clash of the counterculture and the old guard, not particularly taking either side, but many watched Joe and cheered his actions. Boyle, a longtime liberal (John Lennon was best man at his wedding) was so horrified at the audience cheering for his character that he swore off violent movies (and turned down The French Connection).

The separate parts of Joe work great, just not all together. The shootout at the end, while inevitable given the script's foreshadowing, belongs to another movie. This may have to do with Boyle's genius performance. He's a bigot, but he's so funny and awkward in his attempts to be charming you can't help rooting for him, which is troubling. You will hear the voice he used years later to play Frank Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond. It's too bad he never gets to say, as Joe, "Holy crap!"

While Boyle is the heart of Joe, after all, it's titled after his character, Patrick is also great. He doesn't know what to do about his daughter, and follows Joe's lead, even though he's more educated. What's also troubling about Joe is that it might be easy for anyone in Patrick's situation to do the same. There's something resolute and satisfying about violence, even if ultimately it solves nothing.

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