Joe is a story of white male friendship. The Joe in the title is Peter Boyle, a racist working-class Vietnam vet. The film doesn’t open with Boyle though, it begins with Susan Sarandon. She’s a rich girl turned hippie who’s slumming with a drug-dealing boyfriend (Patrick McDermott) in the Village.
The “prologue” (for the entirety of the first act, Joe feels like a series of unconnected stage plays strung together) is about Sarandon and McDermott fighting, getting high, messing around, dealing, and so on. The present action of it is like forty-five minutes, hence the staginess. Norman Wexler’s dialogue isn’t good, Avildsen’s direction isn’t good, McDermott’s terrible, but at least Sarandon’s sympathetic. Everyone’s against her—Wexler, McDermott, but also Avildsen, whose best move in Joe will be objectifying young women from a particularly creepy, predatory angle while making it clear they’re in danger from creepy predators. It’s not much of a feat, but Avildsen’s direction is always lamentable, save maybe one shot of New York buildings (he also photographed). And maybe is a stretch. It’s just been so much dull direction—Joe is low budget, but Avildsen’s direction doesn’t innovate to compensate; it’s like watching an amateur soap opera most of the time.
Thanks to McDermott’s callousness, Sarandon ends up in the hospital, introducing parents Audrey Caire and Dennis Patrick to the story. They have to get her stuff and get into an argument on the apartment building stairs, which immediately turns Caire into a mean mom trope and Patrick into a confused but earnest dad. Caire’s never good though there are more times for her when it seems like she ought to be, and Joe’s just not working. She leaves Patrick to do it alone, and he gets into a fight with McDermott.
Notice we still haven’t gotten to Boyle? It takes Joe forever to get to that failed play—Boyle in a bar talking lots of racist shit to his fellow white men who aren’t comfortable with it but aren’t going to say anything because he’s a vet after all, and they’re all white aren’t they—but not just in the story. Avildsen pads the film throughout with lengthy sequences where Patrick walks around or cleans or packs or looks. About thirty percent of Joe is just Avildsen and editor George T. Norris intentionally boring the viewer.
Patrick heads to the bar to cool off after the apartment fight and meets Boyle. Now, when I said “lots of racist shit,” I mean lots. It’s Archie Bunker overdrive, with the N-word popping up every fourth word. Clearly, Boyle’s going for it in the performance. Sadly the only time he ever really rings true is when he’s opposite wife, K Callan.
Very recognizable Reid Cruickshanks plays the bartender in the scene and is more professional than most of the cast, supporting and main.
Anyway, fast forward a few days, and plot perturbations lead to Boyle and Patrick hanging out. They become an odd couple, rich guy Patrick, working-class guy Boyle; they’re both vets (it’s unclear if Patrick was in Vietnam or Korea or WWII), they’re both cruel, callous, racist, sexist, homophobic bigots. They also both like young women, which will sadly be the entire third act. They’re able to bond over being red-blooded American men; while Patrick never goes on a racist tirade, he really hates those hippies, something Boyle’s able to use as a touchstone. Bad things happening to hippies is good for the world.
Then there’s the pointless dinner scene where the riches and the poors get together in Queens, which forecasts a terrifying “All in the Family” variant. Callan’s worried about the house not being good enough for Boyle’s new moneyed pal, Patrick, who’s had to drag snooty wife Caire along. Caire picks up on Callan’s fretting and is condescendingly empathetic. But the better move is if Caire isn’t condescending, which Wexler and Avildsen miss; Caire seems to get it, Wexler knows the moment’s there, Avildsen’s oblivious. For Avildsen, the scene's all about getting Boyle close to boiling over. It's exploitative, but Avildsen somehow can't figure out how to do it.
Still awake? You might not be if you were watching the movie.
After the dinner, while talking about how manly Boyle makes him feel, Patrick upsets Sarandon, who runs away. So the third act is Patrick and Boyle looking for her in the Village and ending up at a hippie orgy. Their behavior there leads to sensational tragedy. Because nothing good is going to come from drunken resentful middle-aged white Republicans perving around young women. Though Joe takes it to a particularly exploitative finish.
Terribly directed exploitative too. Avildsen takes a big swing, and he doesn’t even seem to be holding a bat.
Joe was a big hit on release, commercially and critically; it’s inept drivel and incredible Avildsen ever got another gig. Though if anything should be about white men failing upward, it’s Joe.