In Search of America
In 1970 America was in a state of flux. The Baby Boomers were coming of age, and their parents were stuck in a cultural gap. The Liberal hippie movement was making noise while the old Conservative guard was left to complain and reminisce about the good old days of drive-ins and the Twist. Director John G. Avildsen traces this transition period of changing moral values in Joe, a heavy-handed commentary on the past and then-present colliding.
Today, Joe is most notable for the debut of Susan Sarandon. She plays Melissa, a hippie rejecting her materialistic upbringing. Although her role is limited, Melissa's innocent lost-lamb persona is the driving force of the entire film. Her wealthy father, Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick), still views his daughter as a child. He sees it as his duty to protect his daughter. When Melissa ends up in the hospital from an overdose, Bill feels like a failure. He goes back to Melissa's flat where he fights with her drug-dealing boyfriend. Bill ends up with blood on his hands; Melissa runs away; and Bill's guilty conscience returns.
Along comes Joe (Peter Boyle), a pig-headed bigot if there ever was one. In Joe's narrow-minded world, intolerance is called patriotism. He wants America to stay the same. In fact, his racist opinions make you believe that given the option, Joe would rather live in the times when he could relax on a cotton farm and have slaves do all his work.
Bill and Joe make an unlikely pair but a pair nonetheless. They head out onto the streets of New York looking for Melissa. What their search actually does is give Joe a chance to encounter his greatest fears head on as they run into all sorts of hippies, Liberals and other sorts looking to give America a modern and more tolerant attitude.
Joe hasn't aged well. It's a celluloid time capsule that effectively captures 1970 America in its look and sound, but the themes don't transfer well at all. The then Liberal movement has become a way of life, and guys like Joe are left sipping Canadian Club on their rickety porches with a tattered American flag blowing in the wind above them.
Norman Wexler's screenplay is as subtle as a fourth of July fireworks display. He hammers his message of cultural divide relying primarily on Joe's strong and distinct voice. Of course, you hate Joe -- but that's not the point. He's so delusional you can't help feeling sorry for him.
It's interesting to see the beginning of Sarandon's career and how she ended up a Liberal free spirit right off the bat. She plays much more the victim than she would in later years, but it's a start. The role of Melissa isn't one of Sarandon's most challenging, although it does provide a couple of opportunities for her to shine. Her small, doe-eyed appearance is perfect to reflect the lost innocence not only of Melissa but of America as a whole. As a young adult, Melissa was meant to symbolize the future by providing a warning about what would happen if the country's attitude continued to reflect through people like Joe.
Difficult as it is not to laugh at Joe today, this film shows the different faces of one's love for a country. And like Bill, who couldn't handle his daughter growing up, sometimes you have to let your own memories of a loved one go in order to allow them to grow.
(Released by MGM/UA Studios and rated "R.")