Joe Versus the Volcano
directed by John Patrick Shanley
(Warner Brothers, 1990)

Joe Versus the Volcano is a vastly underrated film. Sure, it features two of Hollywood's "cutest" star attractions -- Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan -- back when both did primarily light-hearted fare, but this is still a well-crafted movie with a lot of laughs, excellent staging and a message. Don't worry, Joe isn't preachy in the least. In fact, the message is a fairly subtle one -- and yet, if you watch this movie and don't spare a thought or two on the manner in which you are spending your life, then your eyes were closed through the good parts.

Once upon a time, Joe Banks (Hanks) was a heroic firefighter. Now he's a hypochondriac locked in a dead-end desk job in a drab and desolate factory, and it's here that the movie really starts to make its mark. The despair of its workers and the grim greyness of their working conditions are just shy of being a caricature; unfortunately, you can too easily imagine someone working in a situation every bit as bad. Then Joe's life takes a dramatic turn and, in his despair and confusion, he pledges himself to a fairly silly crusade. Y'see, Joe is dying, and he's convinced that it's better to live one month in grand, adventurous style than linger five or six months without direction or means.

So Joe sets out to spend a lot of money and then throw himself grandly into a burbling volcano.

The movie is marked by a grand array of supporting characters, beginning with Joe's abrasive boss, Frank Waturi (Dan Hedaya), who is dead-on as every employee's worst nightmare, and Joe's pretty but timid co-worker DeDe (Ryan, in the first of three roles). Robert Stack is the seemingly benevolent physician who gives Joe his bad news, and Lloyd Bridges is the over-the-top billionaire Samuel Harvey Graynamore, whose insensitive gregariousness and his need for a victim is the catalyst for Joe's eventual transformation.

Marshall (Ossie Davis) is Joe's chauffeur for a day and his affable self-improvement guru. He leads Joe on a shopping excursion of personal discovery and introduces him to fine tuxedoes and the luggage salesman (Barry McGovern), whose life is luggage. (The luggage is very important.) Then there's a cross-country flight and Angelica (Ryan again), Graynamore's first daughter, a shallow poser, artist, poet and self-confessed flibbertigibbet. After just one night in L.A., Joe is taken to the yacht Tweedledee and Patricia (Ryan's third and final role), Angelica's independent and angry half-sister, as well as Amanda Plummer as Dagmar, Patricia's feisty engineer. Together, they will sail Joe to his ultimate destination: the volcanic Pacific island of the Waponis, where Celtic, Jewish, Roman and Polynesian cultures have intermingled to produce a cross-cultural hankering for orange soda, a general lack of courage, some unusual but effective treatments for sunburn, dehydration and exposure, and Abe Vigoda as the mild-mannered Chief Tobi.

The island scenes are the only places where the movie doesn't really work. There was too much effort here to make obvious gags which just don't earn the kind of chuckles they wanted.

Although there's a great deal of talent making brief appearances throughout this film, the focus is always solidly on Hanks and the various incarnations of Ryan. Hanks' performance is a series of great moments, from his dejected beginnings to his final transformation. There's a great mix of subtle and blatant humor here, with many small touches that only a careful eye will see. They alone, as well as the endearing leading characters, excellent dialogue and a smile-inducing storyline, will tempt you to watch this one again.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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