Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in Joe Versus the Volcano.
Joe Versus the Volcano is the first of three movies to star Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. To my mind, despite being a flop upon its release, it is easily the best of the three. It's funny and quirky, filled with brilliantly oddball characters, some truly great and quotable lines and yet it also has something to say about life.
Hanks plays Joe Banks, a drone at a factory on Staten Island who spends his dull, miserable life worrying that it will end. It is only when he is told that he has just a few months to live that he suddenly comes to life. A rich and eccentric stranger (Lloyd Bridges in a small but memorable part) offers him a deal. If Joe will jump into a volcano on a small south seas island to appease the natives there so a deal can be made for a valuable mineral on the island, then Joe will be given anything he wants in the meantime. With no other options Joe agrees, setting out on what he assumes will be his final journey.
Along the way Joe meets three different women, all played by Meg Ryan. Each of the women is distinctively different with Patricia (the final girl) being the closest to the standard Meg Ryan character. Ryan is terrific as all of them and does some of the best acting of her career here. It's a pity she became so typecast in romantic comedies. She had a future as a character actress.
The movie is written and directed by playwright John Patrick Shanley (he also won an Oscar for the Moonstruck screenplay). His script is filled with characters, great lines, recurring themes and symbolism. It's also very funny. Shanley creates a world that is off-kilter with some great visuals that often make no attempt at reality. A brightly colored New York skyline or the florescent lit factory or the windowless edifice of the doctor's office are all strong images.
There are several running themes and images throughout the movie. The lightening bolt, the duck and the mention of the word soul are just a few of them. You could go the whole movie without even noticing them, but they add to the viewing if you do.
As great as this movie is not quite everything works perfectly. The romance between Joe and Patricia is good, but it seems to move too fast at the end. And the jokes involving the orange soda drinking island natives never quite work. They're odd, but not particularly funny.
I think the big reason this movie failed at the box office is that it's hard to classify. It's not really a romantic comedy and the humor is both silly and smart, sometimes at the same time. Fans of Wes Anderson's films should definitely enjoy this movie.
A Hollywood movie that manages to say something without becoming heavy-handed is rare enough. A Hollywood movie that manages to say something and be not just entertaining, but funny as well, is even rarer. Joe Versus the Volcano is one of those movies.
Meg Ryan makes a hot red head in Joe Versus the Volcano
Joe Versus the Volcano is a parable for the bored working man who feels crushed by the routine of a job and life he does not enjoy. The lesson is an obvious one. As Scott wrote, "It is only when he is told that he has just a few months to live that he suddenly comes to life." It also helps that he is given near unlimited funds to enjoy his time with.
After Joe sees a doctor and finds out he has a brain cloud, the soundtrack sums up how Joe is feeling by playing "Old Man River." Although there is no such thing as a brain cloud, what is really bothering Joe was explained a few moments earlier when Dede asked, "What's with the shoe?" and Joe answers, "I'm losing my sole."
Joe speaks to the lonely man. He represents the average nice guy in all of us who struggles to connect with other people. He tries to buy the chauffeur's friendship. He meets women he does not understand. Joe is on life's journey but he is clearly not steering the boat.
Tom Hanks is playing his usual stock character, that of Mr. Average. Meg Ryan is at her most adorable. She provides plenty of charm playing three different women; Dede and her accent, Angelica's catch phrase, "I have no response to that." and finally Patricia, the woman every man would want and few will ever meet.
Although not a long movie, it drags a little at the beginning and becomes a fantasy at the end. Scott wrote of how it is hard to categorize this film. This is a compliment to its uniqueness but it also presents the problem of finding its rhythm. It wants to make a statement on a man rediscovering his soul, but the plot ends with such a ridiculous resolution that it loses its impact.
An iconic image from Joe Versus the Volcano.
Although I enjoyed Joe Versus the Volcano (and I had somehow never seen it before), I understand why it wasn’t a hit at the box office. It is too Hollywood for the art house circuit and too odd for mainstream tastes. It is definitely a unique little film.
Like Eric I thought the beginning dragged a bit during the scenes of Joe at work. Once Lloyd Bridges makes his entrance it picks up a lot. Joe’s journey, both physical and metaphysical, is the best part of the story. I especially enjoyed the time they spend on the trunks floating at sea.
Once they arrive at the island the story suffers. Scott, I couldn’t agree more about the embarrassing portrayal of the natives. Their scenes were like Cecil B. DeMille directing an episode of Gilligan’s Island. The plot device of Joe jumping into the volcano was used in one of the movies Ginger Grant starred in. And Abe Vigoda and Nathan Lane as natives?! Now that’s what I call a WTF moment.
Hanks’ Joe is a bit of a blank slate. I never really felt like I knew him. Likewise, Meg Ryan’s characters are caricatures, like people in a television variety sketch. The fact that the movie is a fantasy makes this okay. The inclusion of the many popular songs also helps advance the story.
Joe Versus the Volcano is a quirky little adventure comedy. It kept me entertained because I was never sure just what to expect next; and that is one of the best things a movie can ever achieve.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. (1990)