Finding Joe is more motivational tape than movie. While it starts off explaining the history of mythologist Joseph Campbell, it quickly veers into a rah-rah affirmation showing how his observations on cross-cultural commonalities in myth can apply to day-to-day living. From that point on, it becomes a philosophical manifesto, with a many-headed hydra of speakers all bringing viewers a unified, upbeat message: It’s possible to change their lives, follow their bliss, tap their inner resources, and live their dreams, if they’re just brave enough to take the dangerous first steps.
First-time writer-director Patrick Takaya Solomon starts off with a Greek chorus of interviewees—professors, writers, philosophers, and gurus of various stripes—briefly laying out Campbell’s heroic-journey template, which defines the core of popular stories from The Epic Of Gilgamesh through Star Wars and beyond: A hero feels the call to adventure, leaves the mundane world, encounters obstacles, fights a key battle, and is ultimately rewarded with self-discovery and self-actualization. Finding Joe illustrates the pattern with clips from Star Wars, The Wizard Of Oz, The Matrix, the Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings movies, Iron Man 2, Superman, Rocky, and many more films. But Campbell is just a springboard and an outline for the rest of the film, which urges people to undertake their own heroic journeys by stepping away security and routine in favor of joy and creative fulfillment. To this end, figures like skater Tony Hawk, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, and author Deepak Chopra share their success stories: why breaking away from their ordinary lives was hard, how they had to fight, and where it got them.
Finding Joe feels like a homemade quilt: It’s warm and comforting, but visually busy, with a repeating pattern that some will find stuffy and overwhelming. The message is repetitive, perhaps because it’s a difficult one to swallow, and requires emphasis from a veritable army of yea-sayers urging viewers to break out of day-to-day hypnosis and go be great. To break up the rhythm of encouraging talking heads, Solomon has children, symbolically costumed as knights, dragons, monks, and businessmen, act out his speakers’ stories and life advice. He also periodically breaks for a Coke-ad collection of people of all races smiling beatifically into the camera. It’s a twee approach, but also a cute, disarming one that emphasizes the playfulness and innocence at the root of his message. Finding Joe isn’t deathless cinema, but for what it is—an encouraging message movie about embracing positivity and courage—it’s admirably uninhibited, and artful enough to go down as smoothly as any sermon can.