Joe Versus the Volcano [50 New-Old Movies for the 51st Year #16]

A couple of months ago, I turned 50 years old!  And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of my life (thus the “Old-New” terminology), and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #16.  Spoilers ahead.  

Joe Versus the Volcano

Directed by John Patrick Shanley (who also wrote the screenplay)

Release Date:  March 9, 1990
My age then:  19 years old

What it is about:  Joe Banks is a hypochondriac who finds out he’s actually dying. He’s approached by rich businessman Samuel Graynamore to appease some superstitious natives from an island that he has business interests on by willingly sacrifice himself by leaping into the volcano. In exchange, Graynamore will allow Joe to buy whatever he wants in the days he has left to live. Desperate for a final adventure, Joe agrees. Along the way, he meets a variety of characters who help him, including Graynamore’s daughter Patricia, with whom he falls in love. In the end, Patricia insists on throwing herself into the volcano with Joe, but just when it looks like they are about to die, fate intervenes and they experience a miracle.

Starring Tom Hanks as Joe Banks, and Meg Ryan as three different women that Joe connects with during the film, including Patricia. Also starring Ossie Davis, Abe Vigoda, Dan Hedaya, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  Really, all I knew is that it was the third Meg Ryan / Tom Hanks pairing, and that it was some sort of quirky comedy. I was under the impression that some people liked it, and some hated it.

Reality:  Well, actually it’s the first Meg Ryan / Tom Hanks movie, coming before either Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail. It’s also the least lucrative of them. It was a modest success, but by no means a hit. No doubt, this was partly due to just how weird a film it is.

Actually, Joe Versus. the Volcano starts off quite strongly, with a highly evocative and expressionistic sequence depicting a dreary, endless trudge into Joe’s hellhole of a workplace. It reads like a slightly more subdued version of something the Coen Brothers would make, like in The Hudsucker Proxy (though of course that movie came later). Dan Hedaya plays Joe’s boss, Mr. Waturi, and he is amazing. Part of the endless misery of Joe’s office is that Waturi seems to be having the same repetitive argument over the phone whenever we see him. It’s actually the first dialogue we hear in the movie and it’s hilarious.

Hedaya is only one of several notable supporting players in Joe Versus the Volcano. It’s Robert Stack who delivers the bad news of his illness to Joe in the first place, and Lloyd Bridges who sets him on his crazy journey. Later, Ossie Davis stands out as a likable chauffeur who helps Joe shop for new (and fancier) clothes, and also teaches Joe something about priorities.

All of these guys are in the film for just a sequence or two, and add a lot of color and life as they support Tom Hanks. Hanks had not yet reached the dramatic heights that he is known for now (Philadelphia was another three years away) but he’s certainly the capable actor we know–and plays the disaffected Joe’s “awakening” well. I particularly enjoyed a bit where he has a epiphany about the his life as he is starving on a raft looking up at an unnaturally enormous moon.

For reasons that I am not clear on, Meg Ryan plays three different women who play roles in Joe’s journey, all of whom either he is romantically interested in, or are themselves romantically interested in Joe, or both. All are pretty well done and are quite distinct (though two of them look alike on purpose). The movie is a romantic fable so Ryan’s performance is key to whatever success it has. She’s brings all the charm that one would expect from a young Meg Ryan, and her characters are made up in an increasingly attractive manner as they are introduced, so that’s nice.

The weakest part of the is the last quarter or so, when Joe and Patricia finally arrive on the island. The natives are all portrayed in a primitive “oooga-booga” style that doesn’t sit well in today’s social climate, where even Star Wars’ Sandpeople are being developed as a culture. And Abe Vigoda is playing the island’s chief. There’s nothing not too love about Abe Vigoda in anything, but it’s the sort of casting that you are not so likely to see today. And this movie, from 1990, falls in that zone of recent film history where one feels we should have probably known better, but it turns out we didn’t.

The film ends with a final scene of Joe and Patricia having experienced a miracle and survived a volcano, and are now floating out into the deep blue sea on a raft made of really expensive luggage (which would have definitely gotten a mention in my post abouT best movie luggage if I’d seen this movie a few years ago). It’s a nice conclusion to the film as far as our lead characters go, and in terms of the emotional themes. But it leaves us with the awkward realization that a whole bunch of other characters apparently died when Patricia’s boat sank and the volcano erupted–a bit dark for this comedy fable. Apparently there was another ending shot which was a lot more plot-heavy, but took the time to show that most of those people survived. Without seeing it, it’s hard to know which would have been better.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think?  Joe Versus the Volcano‘s surreal story and stage design (there’s little effort at making the volcano look actually realistic) might not work for everyone, but it did for me. The first ten minutes are masterful, and if it weren’t for the weakness of the last section, it might even be a favorite of mine.

See here for the Master List.

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