Splashy, spoofy and goofy, "The Jewel of the Nile," the sequel to "Romancing the Stone," is both more fun and less touching than the original -- what was once a love story is now an out-and-out romp. Though overproduced and uninvolving, "Jewel" is also a smartly written and playfully directed crowd pleaser, and in this Christmas season, you take what you can get.
At the outset, we rejoin romance writer Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) and free-lance adventurer Jack Colton (Michael Douglas), who are sailing in the Mediterranean on their dream yacht. The dream, alas, is in trouble. All Jack wants to do is party, and Joan's not getting any work done. She doesn't understand him: "Spectacular parties and great sunsets -- it's not enough," she says. Jack, for his part, doesn't understand her, either. As Joan's publisher says, "The guy's favorite author is the guy who wrote 'Pull Tab to Open.' "
At the start, screen writers Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner work with crackerjack economy, getting this conflict in early and reintroducing the inept hustler Ralph (Danny DeVito) as well (it turns out he's pursued Colton from South America, comically seeking revenge). The conflict is heightened, of course, if the lovers are torn apart, which they are when Omar (Spiros Focas) asks Joan to write his story, spiriting her away to his kingdom. Joan discovers that Omar is a nasty guy who, in his ambition to unite his nation's tribes under his rule, has kidnaped the Jewel of the Nile -- the honorific title of a holy man (Avner Eisenberg). Both Joan and Jack (who thinks the jewel is really a jewel) become embroiled in the strife, in high swashbuckling style.
Director Lewis Teague uses the frame the way a magician uses a hat or a handkerchief: surprises are always popping into it, or out of its shadows. Early on, for example, Jack appears out of nowhere to catch a freshly popped champagne cork in his fist. Unfortunately, the most sprightly effects are loaded at the beginning, and "The Jewel of the Nile" often bogs down in big production numbers. Why is there a phony-looking F14 in this remote Arab village, you ask? So that the adventurers can climb into it and haplessly crash through some adobe houses. Why, in the climax, does the set explode in flames? So that, in one of the most poorly executed special effects scenes of the year, the holy man can walk through the fire.
Teague has a way with action sequences, but the chase on a train, however well executed, doesn't fit in here -- it belongs to another movie. The big budget is like a curse afflicting "The Jewel of the Nile," which is at its best when it's intimate. Luckily, that's much of the time.
Douglas is, of course, Douglas, albeit sunburned -- here's an actor who always seems to be watching himself in the mirror. But Turner, her green eyes sparkling in soft red light, is as radiant as a Christmas tree, and as hang-it-all jolly as an elf. Since she's best known for her delicious smoldering, it's easy to forget that Turner can be a stylish comedian, as in "The Man With Two Brains," or here.
The real find of "Jewel" is Eisenberg, who recently appeared here at the Kreeger as "Avner the Eccentric." At its best, Teague's direction is marvelously loose, and Eisenberg is looser still, a gleefully out-of-it clown who wraps his burbly voice around the movie's best lines. Since the holy man is constantly frustrating Colton, Eisenberg adroitly dilutes Douglas; and something in his wiggy style seems to touch a chord in Turner, who follows him like a jitterbug.
What hamstrings "The Jewel of the Nile" is that, in the end, it isn't about anything. In trying to give the movie an emotional center, all Rosenthal and Konner can come up with is that familiar contemporary saw about the male failure to commit (Jack can't). But you have to admire the kind of writing that even saves Danny DeVito, who's never really translated to the big screen -- perhaps simply by virtue of his shape and stature, he always seems to insist too hard that he's the comic relief. The movie's all surface, true -- it doesn't linger for a second. Then again, effervescence, too, has its place.
he Jewel of the Nile, opening today at area theaters, is rated PG and contains nudity and sexual situations.