Finding Joe - knight
A child dressed as a knight personifies the quest to overcome personal limitations © 2011 Balcony Releasing

This upbeat documentary about making life into a journey of self-discovery is based on findings by mythology researcher Joseph Campbell, who proposed that all hero stories contain common elements that are metaphors for overcoming adversity in the real world.

Director/writer/producer Patrick Takaya Solomon keeps things from getting too new-age preachy by sticking mostly to the secular. Campbell’s idea that hero myths always include three basic parts — separation, initiation and return — is illustrated with clips from movies as varied as The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Gladiator, Batman and The Lord of the Rings. As with the main characters in those movies, each person eventually is faced with opportunities to transition from the status quo, adapt to face challenges and return enriched from the experience.

In addition to interviews with spiritually oriented subjects such as Deepak Chopra, Living Tao Foundation president Chungliang Al Huang and Joseph Campbell Foundation president Robert Walter, the film includes input from arts and sports figures including director Catherine Hardwicke, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, actress Rashida Jones, drummer Mick Fleetwood, skateboarder Tony Hawk and surfer Laird Hamilton. Breaking up the talking heads are amusing segments in which costumed kids act out concepts from seeking the grail to fighting dragons.

Finding Joe - People dressed as tigers
Many sheep never realize they could be tigers © 2011 Balcony Releasing

One undiscussed problem with Campbell’s self-actualizing “find your bliss” philosophy as presented here is that it does not allow for the possibility of failure. Campbell’s adherents are almost evangelical in their optimism about the process of triumphing over problems simply by confronting them. Goldsman observes that anyone who keeps trying instead of giving up is “likely” to get lucky. Campbell is quoted as saying, “Your life is the fruit of your own doing. You have no one to blame but yourself” and “The universe will open doors where there were only walls.”

But there’s a difference between “you have to play to win” and “you will win if you play.” That logic gap makes it hard to recommend the film to young audiences, even though they are the ones who might benefit most from its pep-talk “be yourself” affirmations. Finding Joe essentially tells anyone who doesn’t succeed that they simply haven’t tried hard enough, ignoring the fact that not everyone who is committed and persistent will be graced with good fortune. Bad things do happen to good people.

The documentary is more enjoyable when it sticks to why stories down through the ages have so much in common. Brian Johnson, intriguingly identified as a “philosopher/entrepreneur,” notes that mythology should be regarded as metaphor, not as a history lesson. And as author Gay Hendricks points out, “The problem is that many of us are metaphorically challenged” — such as those who think heaven is a place that is somewhere else, as opposed to a state that can be reached in this life.

It’s hard to argue with the movie’s message that everyone would benefit from escaping the modern-day treadmill of trance-inducing conformity and consumerism by trying new things and taking risks. Finding Joe could be faulted for making it sound as if success is guaranteed on those quests, but praised for encouraging viewers to undertake them.

[Rating:3 stars]

Finding Joe is in theaters from Friday September 30, 2011

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.