Joe vs. the Volcano (United States, 1990)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

John Patrick Shanley made a name for himself by scripting Moonstruck, the award- winning 1987 romantic comedy starring Cher and Nicolas Cage. Joe Versus the Volcano, a provocatively-titled, modern day fable, is his fourth script and first opportunity in the director's chair. It's a curious blend of satire, comedy, melodrama, and romance, that, if nothing else, is memorable for its uniqueness. Most of the time, it's easy to compare a new movie to something already available, but not in this case. No one is going to accuse Joe of being derivative, and, with so many movies fitting into easily-defined niches, that's a refreshing characteristic.

The great god Big Woo, lord of the orange-soda swilling natives of Waponi Woo, demands a sacrifice. Big Woo is a volcano, and, unless someone jumps into its maw, the unappeased god will sink the island under the Pacific, drowning the Waponis. So along comes Joe (Tom Hanks), a man worn down by a drab life and a dead-end job. Joe has lost his self-respect -- he lacks the courage even to ask out the boss' mousy secretary (Meg Ryan). Then, one day, Joe learns that he is afflicted with a terminal condition called a "brain cloud". Suddenly free from the constraint of worrying about his mortality, he accepts the offer of a wealthy tycoon (Lloyd Bridges) to live out his last days "like a man", then die like a hero. In his case, being heroic means offering himself to Big Woo.

Shanley's script can best be described as "quirky". Stretches of Joe Versus the Volcano are nearly perfect. Take the opening sequence, for example, where Joe trudges to work alongside hundreds of lifeless co-workers to the tune of "Sixteen Tons". It's a masterpiece of composition, set design, atmosphere, and photography. Then there's Joe's shopping trip with his sophisticated limo driver, Marshall (Ossie Davis) -- a cleverly-written, superbly-acted string of scenes that's a delight to watch. Joe Versus the Volcano contains a number of these standout moments. Unfortunately, there are quite a few poorly-conceived ones to go alongside them.

The ending really doesn't work. In fact, the whole last act has problems. Once Joe and his love interest, Patricia (Ryan), reach Waponi Woo, things start to unravel. Shanley's attempts to have fun with the Waponi culture don't succeed. The satire isn't well-focused and the humor is flat. It's a shame, because this segment seems ripe with promise, all of which is wasted. Shanley never finds the right tone.

In fact, the second half of the film suffers from a mild case of split personality. On one hand, Shanley wants to continue the offbeat, delicious rhythm initiated with the opening credits, but, on the other hand, he wants to explore the romance between soul-sick Patricia and life-weary Joe. While the two motives aren't necessarily in conflict, each leeches time away from the other. Ultimately, the real reason we care about the pairing of Patricia and Joe has less to do with the script than with the appeal and charisma of the two leads, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Ryan, who plays three separate roles (the brown-haired, mousy secretary, Dede; the red-headed, Los Angeles socialite, Angelica; and Angelica's blonde, half-sister, Patricia), has the more challenging task. She does a good job with Dede and Patricia, but Angelica is a little too exaggerated to be more than a cartoon caricature. Each of these characters is different from the others, with unique mannerisms and vocal inflections. Hanks doesn't have to work too hard -- Joe is infused with the actor's natural likability, and that's all that's necessary. There are several cameos: Lloyd Bridges (as the businessman who convinces Joe to "take the leap"), Robert Stack (as the doctor who diagnoses Joe's condition), Amanda Plummer (as the first mate on the boat that takes Joe to Waponi Woo), and Abe Vigoda (as the Waponi chief).

The production design is, in a word, fantastic. From the bowels of Joe's office, with its flickering florescent lights and unappealing coffee, to the magical New York skyline, with its multi-colored pastel lights, Joe is blessed with a behind-the-scenes crew capable of realizing Shanley's inspired vision. Even during its worst moments, this film still looks good.

Joe Versus the Volcano is difficult to review because some parts are fresh, inventive, and entertaining, while others are near-misses or even complete failures. On balance, however, I readily admit liking this movie, although the second half pales in comparison to the first. But, if only for the pleasure of its best moments, or the enjoyment of savoring Hanks and Ryan's chemistry (pre-Sleepless in Seattle), Joe Versus the Volcano is worth the price of admission.

Joe vs. the Volcano (United States, 1990)

Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 1990-03-09
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1