joesvsvolcano1For the first decade of his career, Tom Hanks was primarily a comedic actor, starring in a series of movies, from Splash to The Money Pit to The ‘Burbs, that had varying degrees of success. He made the transition to drama in 1993 with Philadelphia and, for the most part, hasn’t looked back since. But despite his career-defining roles in Forrest Gump and Saving Private Ryan, Hanks owes the fact that he has a career at all to those ‘80s comedies. With his breakout success in Big, Hanks solidified himself as a much sought-after comedic force. What followed was a two-year slump that saw every movie he released lose big at the box office. Sandwiched between what were mostly typical ‘80s comedies, though, is a strange creature: a surreal and enchanting romantic comedy about mundane working existence, fate and the meaning of life.

Joe Versus the Volcano is quite probably the biggest anomaly in Hanks’ filmography. As it’s also the first Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan collaboration and the only flop, it’s a wonder that the two were paired again for the successes Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. It was a complete failure at the box office, despite being backed by executive producer Steven Spielberg. And the film’s writer/director, John Patrick Shanley (of Moonstruck fame), infused the basis of a standard romantic comedy with nothing short of witty satire and provocative allegory. It was a brave move at the time but not one that was rewarded by critics or audiences. Maybe that’s because they missed the point.

joesvsvolcano2Shanley sets the tone of the film in one title card: “Once upon a time, there was a man named Joe…” It’s a clichéd, fairy tale beginning, but it signals that we’re watching a surreal fairy tale of a hypochondriac in a dead-end job. Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) suffers from something – who knows what – truly debilitating, afraid to live or leave his hum-drum life. Since leaving his first job at the fire department, Joe has scheduled countless appointments with doctors, trying to discover why he no longer feels good. His dingy world consists of a dilapidated apartment and a soul-sucking factory job. Day in and day out, Joe resists asking out his co-worker, DeDe (Meg Ryan) while he suffers under the depressing fluorescent lighting and hears the complaints of his oppressive boss, Mr. Waturi (Dan Hedaya) – a man whose life consists of repeating the same circular dialogue, the same pointless argument ad infinitum. This closed life is mind-numbingly meaningless. Until, that is, Joe finally receives the terminal diagnosis he has been expecting for years. He has a “brain cloud,” which conveniently has no symptoms, and is guaranteed five months of perfect health before he dies. With the knowledge of his assured and imminent death, Joe suddenly throws off the shackles of his miserable life and resolves to live what little life he has left to the fullest.

With a set-up like that, you might not think that Shanley’s directorial debut truly is a comedy, but it is, and a hilarious one at that. Remember, the best comedy comes from pain. And Shanley milks Joe’s dim, lifeless world for all it’s worth. The routine and monotonous world of American Panascope (“Home of the rectal probe”) where Joe works, is painfully funny in its accuracy. Meg Ryan, whose turn as three different women drew heavy criticism, is fittingly irritating and pitiable as the failed artist and untrustworthy flibbertigibbet Angelica. As funny as Joe Versus the Volcano is, though, it deals in some heavy questions about life and meaning, all under the guise of a fable, a myth in sync with the likes of Homer’s The Odyssey. And here’s where Shanley’s background in the theater shines. He brings highly theatrical and stylized dialogue, repetition and symbolism to this tale. This, along with the film’s ambitious and impressionistic sets (by Beetlejuice production designer Bo Welch) combine to create a wholly fantastical story of a man who quits his lousy job and agrees to sail to an island populated by Polynesian-Jewish natives who love orange soda and jump into their volcano to appease an angry god.

When it becomes a fantasy – full of crooked paths and brain clouds – Joe Versus the Volcano comes into its own. It makes perfect sense to have Meg Ryan play three characters, all attempts at finding Joe’s ideal woman. Joe’s series of guides, from his chauffer (Ossie Davis) to the best luggage salesman ever seen on screen, are all modern versions of mythic icons meant to help him in his journey. The concept is genius and executed by Shanley to great effect. Within this modern odyssey, between the orange sodas and the colossal lightning strikes, Shanley chooses to address serious questions. This may be the heart of the reason for Joe Versus the Volcano’s lukewarm reception: the film’s romantic comedy front didn’t prepare people for a story that tackled fate and human insecurities and characters that contemplated suicide but were afraid of death. They couldn’t reconcile existentialism and comedy.

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One Comment

  1. Tammy Madden

    April 2, 2015 at 8:10 am

    I love this movie. I use it to teach literary elements and analysis to all of my high school English classes…have for years…LOVE it!

    Reply

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