This is no doubt just the 1980s nostalgic in me speaking, but I miss the days when Tom Hanks was willing to just turn in a completely goofy comedy. I’m a big fan of Big, I liked The Man With One Red Shoe, and Dragnet was a lot of fun. His few forays into comedies lately seem to be more of the romantic comedy type (and Toy Story). Released in 1990, Joe Versus the Volcano sounded like it would be one of those early goofy Tom Hanks movies. I’ve seen parts of it before — I remember my parents renting it when it came out on VHS, but I was 12 and didn’t pay much attention — but I figured it would be a good film to watch in full, especially as it also stars Meg Ryan, who has a proven track record with Hanks (this would be the first of their films together).
Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley (his first film as a director), Joe Versus the Volcano certainly has its goofy elements. But it also has just a little bit more to it.
Such as misery, gloom, and despair.
Hanks plays Joe Banks, a former firefighter turned office worker. Joe hates his life, which is miserable, and he hates his job, which is making him miserable. And he doesn’t feel well. He gets headaches, his throat hurts, he feels his energy slowly slipping away. He frequently visits doctors to find out what’s wrong with him, only to come away empty handed, until one day his latest doctor (Robert Stack in a cameo) gives him some good news and some bad news. The good news is that his aches and pains and loss of energy is all psychosomatic — Dr. Ellison states that Joe is a hypochondriac whose symptoms are the result of his unresolved fear from his years of firefighting. Joe only feels bad because of his anxiety. The bad news is that all the tests Dr. Ellison had to run turned up something else. Joe has a “brain cloud” — an asymptomatic slowly-progressing deterioration in the brain. Joe will feel perfectly fine until he dies, but that day is only a few months away. At first Joe is distressed, but then starts to feel liberated — with his worst fear confirmed, he has nothing left to fear.
Everybody’s had the occasional boss they wanted to manhandle.
Joe is soon approached by another patient of Dr. Ellison’s a man named Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges), who has a particular job offer for Joe. Graynamore is a wealthy CEO with an unusual problem. He needs a rare mineral for his superconductor company, and there’s an island in the South Pacific that has a large deposit of it. But the locals — the descendants of a blend of Polynesians, Romans, Jews, and Celtic Druids called the Waponi — won’t trade. Graynamore has nothing they want. But they’re afraid of the giant volcano in the middle of their island, which they believe will soon erupt and sink the island without a willing human sacrifice. And no Waponi is willing to make the leap. Graynamore proposes that Joe, who has very little time left, go out in a bang by leaping into the volcano. The Waponis get their peace of mind, Graynamore gets his mineral, and Joe gets to live like a king on Graynamore’s credit cards until it’s time to jump. Joe accepts and starts living large on his way to the island of Waponi Woo.
Renting a limo to go clothes shopping is normal rich person behavior, isn’t it?
The premise may sound pretty goofy, and it is. But there’s also a lot of heart in this film. Joe learns lessons in life from his limo driver (Ossie Davis), and even the comically stereotyped Waponi (stereotyped of a weird blend of cultures, no less) have a degree of depth to them with their spiritual leader (Abe Vigoda) lamenting the fact that none of the Waponi are willing to make the sacrifice themselves (he’s ineligible as chief). And most particularly Joe, facing the end of his life, finally learns to embrace life after realizing he’s been hiding from it for so long. This progression in Joe’s character is reflected in his female companions in the journey, all played by Meg Ryan. DeDe, his office co-worker matches his early timidity. Angelica Graynamore parallels his initial jadedness with his impending death, and his superficial attempts to “live large”. And Angelica’s half-sister Patricia, with whom Joe spends the most time with, reflects the way he learns to embrace his life and truly enjoy it, even if neither of them are sure where it’s going to go. Ryan — who has radically different hair styles between characters — does a great job of acting out these three different roles, though it is clear that she’s most comfortable in the third and final role (although Angelica may be the most colorful).
Or is “garish” the word I’m looking for?
Like a lot of films about dying, it’s really a film about learning how to live. But it avoids being schmaltzy (a difficult task even in a regular romantic comedy) through its humor and through the use of drama-building events that don’t rely on the fact that Joe is about to die. Joe’s impending death may start his voyage of self-discovery, but he doesn’t “learn to love life because he’s about to die”, the way so many films about terminal illness would have it. He simply learns to love life along the way, because of the path he takes; his illness is almost incidental. Throw in some great set design, some careful foreshadowing, and some nice use of thematic elements and recurring motifs, and you also have a fairly well-crafted film.
Joe Versus the Volcano is a film that seems to have been overlooked in its time. That’s a shame, because it’s really a pretty good film. It manages to be a film about the triumph of the human spirit and loving life, and to be a romantic comedy, without falling into the cloying sweetness that those two genres are so prone to. It’s funny and charming, and well worth watching.