In his seminal book A Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell studied the myths of the various prevailing cultures—Greek, Buddhist, English, etc.—and famously concluded that all stories were basically one story, which is essentially a tale of coming of age. The classic plot progression opens on heroes who, isolated and alienated from their current life and culture, finds that they must leave and face a number of obstacles and tests that eventually pave the way for their return to society as beings with a greater understanding of themselves that leads to fruitful self-actualization. This archetypal story illustrates the major existential need that unites virtually every human, which is to contribute to his or her society in a way that enriches, rather than contradicts, his or her interior essence.
That truth, in itself, is virtually beyond debate, but Finding Joe doesn’t seem to know that. The film, disappointingly, isn’t a biography of the fascinating Campbell, but a clumsily edited hodgepodge that reduces a writer’s complicated and poignant findings to a series of self-help clichés. Director Patrick Takaya Solomon alternates between interviews with a surprisingly varied number of notable figures, such as Deepak Chopra, Mick Fleetwood, Rashida Jones, Tony Hawke, Akiva Goldsman, as well as several teachers and philosophers, and they all manage to basically say the same thing, which involves the need to be courageous and to face your fears so as to liberate yourself in a mass culture that favors mindless conformity.
Once again, no argument, but the film quickly becomes redundant, and there’s a self-congratulatory smugness to it that’s off-putting. Most of the figures here are obviously quite successful, wealthy, and all-around testaments to the American Dream that drives most people to the kind of despair that’s, as inferred in this film, a product of conformity and cowardice. But it’s easy to celebrate your devotion to your own independence when a mortgage or rent payment isn’t hanging over you; when you aren’t facing one failed job interview after another in an economic climate that’s hopeless for virtually anyone who dares to pursue a job that resides somewhere outside of the go-to medical, legal, and financial fields.
The talking heads featured here do speak of the risk of attempting a true self-actualization in spite of the social pressures to be a nine-to-five zombie in an office somewhere, but that’s mere lip service. And another possibility, that you may not be even remotely capable of attaining your dream, isn’t even broached, as that would compromise the feel-good vibes of the mutual admiration society (a few of the interviewees, such as Hawke and Jones, do admittedly manage to avoid obnoxiousness). Finding Joe maintains that every person should, as Campbell wrote, “find your bliss,” a potentially valuable nugget of wisdom that this film manages to reduce to 80 minutes of celebs giving themselves hugs.