Was I Wrong?: Joe Vs. the Volcano
Today is the 25th anniversary of the release of the first movie to costar Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, Joe Vs. the Volcano. And I’m pretty sure this is the only site on the internet that will mark the occasion. Hanks and Ryan went on to appear in two more successful movies together. But Joe Vs. the Volcano seemed to confound critics and audiences alike. The movie received mixed reviews from critics and flopped at the box office. It effectively killed writer-director John Patrick Shanley’s directing career. The Oscar-winning screenwriter of Moonstruck returned to theater after his directorial debut.
But 25 years ago, I sat in an almost empty movie theater and was completely enchanted by Joe Vs the Volcano. I didn’t just like it. I loved almost everything about it. I was certain that a movie this wonderfully unique would eventually find an audience. And while I have found others who love Joe Vs. the Volcano as much as I do, popular opinion on the movie hasn’t really changed.
I used to watch Joe on a regular basis. But as adult responsibilities made repeat viewings of any movie less and less frequent, Joe Vs the Volcano faded from memory. Eventually I reached a point where I was almost afraid to watch it again. What if I didn’t love it anymore? What if I had been wrong and everyone else who thought the movie was silly and stupid was right?
For the movie’s 25th anniversary, I decided it was time to take a chance and jump back into the volcano.
Twenty-five years after Joe Vs. the Volcano flopped at the box office, I feel totally vindicated. The movie, which has the timeless quality of a fairy tale, feels as fresh as it did when it was released. Compare that to Hanks and Ryan’s rom com, You’ve Got Mail, which was far more successful in theaters but feels decades past its sell-by date. Or better yet, forget that Ryan and Hanks ever starred in a commercial for AOL and enjoy the unique whimsical charms of the on-screen couple’s best movie.
Joe Vs. the Volcano starts with the words “Once Upon a Time…” Shanley signals the audience right up front that what we are about to view is more akin to a bedtime story than a realistic movie. We’re in the world of fantasy here. If you’re going to have any hope of enjoying the movie, you have to give yourself over to its quirky world.
We’re introduced to Hanks as a man named Joe. Joe looks miserable. He trudges through the rain to a dead-end job in the worst place in the world. Joe works at a factory that that manufactures medical implements. All color is washed out in blacks and greys. The employees trudge down a crooked path to enter the factory. Along the way, a flower which breaks the bleak color scheme is trampled under the foot of a factory worker. A sign reads “Home of the Rectal Probe!”, but it may as well read “Abandon hope all ye who enter.”
As if Joe’s job wasn’t bad enough, his boss makes sure his life is a hellish as possible. Dan Hedaya plays Mr. Waturi, a small man who lords his managerial power over his employees. When we meet Mr. Waturi, he is on a phone call in which he repeats slight variations of the same three phrases over and over again. He may be the boss, but make no mistake about it, he’s stuck in hell too.
Joe leaves work to go to a doctor appointment. The doctor, played by Robert Stack, gives Joe news he has been dreading. We learn that Joe was once a firefighter. But traumatic experiences on the job have left him afraid of life. He’s become a hypochondriac. Because of his repeated insistence on being tested, the doctors were able to detect a rare condition called a “brain cloud”. The doctor tells Joe he only has five or six months left to live and then he will die a painless death. He advises Joe to make the most of his remaining time.
Joe takes the news remarkably well. He comes to realize that for the past several years, he hasn’t really been living a life anyway. He quits his dead-end job in dramatic fashion and asks out a mousy coworker played by Ryan.
Ryan plays three roles in Joe Vs. the Volcano. Each of the three characters she plays is a reflection of where Joe is in his journey. The first character, DeDe, is almost as afraid of life as Joe is. At first, she responds to his new lease on life. But when she finds out that Joe is dying, she retreats back to her bleak existence at the factory.
The next day, Joe is visited by a wealthy businessman played with elfish glee by Lloyd Bridges. Bridges assesses Joe’s dingy apartment by banging a hole in the wall with his cane. He makes Joe and offer. Rather than live his remaining days in his depressing residence, he can go on an adventure.
Bridges explains that he owns a company that makes superconductors. These superconductors run on a rare substance called “bubaru”. What’s bubaru? Well, for one thing, it’s incredibly fun to say. Bridges’ problem is that he can only find bubaru on the island of Waponi Woo. Yes, another fun word. But the Waponis aren’t interested in his money and won’t sell him the rights to mine bubaru from their island.
Fortunately for Bridges, there is something the Waponis need. They believe that an angry god lives in a volcano. The only way the volcano god can be appeased is if a man voluntarily jumps into the volcano. But this new generation of Waponis has grown too accustomed to their cushy life on the island and especially of their love of orange soda. So no one on the island will volunteer to jump into the volcano.
Since Joe is going to die anyway, the industrialists suggests that he use his remaining days to travel to the island of Waponi Woo and die a hero by jumping into the volcano. Joe thinks about it for a second and says “sure”.
The next day, Joe goes on a shopping spree with Bridges’ credit card. He is picked up by a limo driver played by Ossie Davis. Davis’ character senses that Joe is a lost soul and reluctantly offers him guidance on the finer things in life. He takes Joe to the best shops in New York where Joe buys them both Armani suits. He gets a much-needed hair cut. And he also buys the world’s most incredible luggage.
After their day of shopping, Davis drops Joe off at his hotel. Joe asks his limo driver/mentor to join him for dinner. Davis declines explaining that he has family obligations. “Don’t you have anyone?” he asks. Joe confirms that he is alone. But he reasons that their are some doors in life that one must walk through alone and that he will be all right. It’s pretty weighty stuff for a movie most people dismiss as silly and stupid.
The next morning, Joe flies to LA where he is greeted by the industrialist’s daughter, Angelica Graynamore. Angelica is the second character played by Ryan. She’s a flighty socialite who describes herself as a “flibbertigibbet.” Yes, Joe Vs. the Volcano is packed full of words that are fun to say. Angelica is the kind of character who responds to new information by saying “I have no response to that.”
Angelica’s job is to deliver Joe to the yacht that will take him to the island. At the yacht, he meets Angelica’s half-sister, Patricia, also played by Ryan. The first two characters played by Ryan are hysterically funny caricatures. Frankly, Ryan has never been funnier than she is in Joe Vs. the Volcano. You can’t help but wish she had played more parts like these during her career. Patricia, being the true love interest of the movie, is much more like Ryan’s usual screen personae. But even though the part is familiar, she has never been more alluring.
During Joe’s adventures at sea, he does nothing less than marvel at the wonders of existence. He realizes that he had been sleep-walking through his life.
By the time he gets to the island, he’s ready to die on his own terms. (Spoilers: the volcano god has something else in mind.) Yes, the ending is a lot to swallow. It’s not a remotely realistic ending. But it’s a sweet way to end a charming fairy tale about a guy who discovered that it was better to live life to the fullest than to be afraid.
I don’t know how many times I have watched Joe Vs. the Volcano. But watching it again for the first time in many years I was reminded of the many wonderful details. There is a recurring image of a crooked line that represents the path of Joe’s life. It shows up at the factory and on the island and even in a storm at sea. Shanley also uses color and music to set the mood as Joe discovers the joys of living. The early scenes are washed out in nightmarish fluorescent lights. Later, a skyline comes to life in primary colors. And the island itself is awash in bright hues.
I have come to accept that Joe Vs. the Volcano isn’t a movie for everybody. I don’t think the movie’s Mr. Waturi would appreciate it for example. It’s far more romantic than most so-called romantic comedies. And far funnier too. But it takes a healthy sense of wonder to loose yourself in the movie’s simple charms. Those of us who do are richly rewarded.
I won’t let years pass before I watch Joe Vs. the Volcano again.