That Moment In ‘Joe Versus The Volcano’ (1990): Hearts Swell and Burst
Joe (Tom Hanks) wants more out of life. He shambles to his dead end job every day, answering to his squeamishly unpleasant boss in a soul-sucking flickering florescent-lit office with a massive main drain valve that says Do Not Touch. He is sickly, weak, beaten down and desperate for something new. A hypochondriac, he goes to doctors seeking for someone, anyone, to tell him how to fix his life. One day, one doctor says it’s over. “You have a brain cloud.” Well, that’s the end for poor Joe, so he thinks. With 6 months to live, he quits his job in high fashion but not before asking the pretty but mousy secretary (Ryan) for dinner. This is the first encounter of three women he will meet in this adventure. All are strangely familiar.
Enter Lloyd Bridges. He suddenly appears at Joe’s rather ramshackle apartment and offers him a way to end his life as a hero rather than wilting away in his catacomb-like surroundings. It’s off to the exotic and remote island of Waponi Woo to help Bridges convince the locals into allowing him to mine for the ultra rare “bubaru”, which he needs so he can manufacture superconductors (Stick with me, here). One hitch: Every 100 years, the islanders must sacrifice a willing human into the active volcano to appease the angry gods. This is that year. Joe is that human. Will Joe learn about the value of life? How many Meg Ryan’s will it take to show him? How seriously have you considered steamer trunks as your luggage of choice?
That Moment In Joe Versus the Volcano
Scene Setup: Joe is dying. He’s quit his job in a sudden uncharacteristic display of chutzpah and is now on his first date with the office secretary, whom he had unexpectedly admitted his attraction to while in his epic “I quit” rant.
Why it Matters: Tom Hanks is still a few years ahead of his defining roles. He’s going to take a swing and fail for acceptance at a bit of drama in the messy Bonfire of the Vanities right after this movie, but when Joe Versus The Volcano opened, we knew him mostly for his comedy (more on this below). He sticks to that expectation pretty closely here, but the glimmer of the depth and talent for drama to come find some light. In this scene, he is beyond charming, boyishly hopeful, and impossible to turn away from. Watch his hands as he discovers that he does indeed feel great, reminding us of his once constant ailments. Look how his face changes when he replies to DeDe’s wish to be where he is, telling her, “No, you don’t.” Listen as he returns from bribing the band.
More: The first chapter of this movie is dark and hilariously glum. We are witness to the droll, yellowish haze of existence that is Joe Banks, the once heroic firefighter now turned recluse. He is weakened by his fear of living and turns to fiction, such as Robin Crusoe and The Odyssey, which, by every indication remain unopened. Now, at the restaurant, things take a drastic turn. The colors are warm and soft. The music is light, the mood is lifted. It signals a shift and begins a steady rise in not only the tempo and attitude, but fantasy elements that progress to a colorful and unexpected ending.
Meg Ryan was just off When Harry Met Sally and ultimately might have hurt ticket sales, probably luring audiences expecting another formulaic rom-com (don’t get us wrong, WHMS is awesome). She is, as she always is in these early films, esoteric, being the “girl” for whom the man must find the greater meaning in it all. That is not a criticism of her at all, and she gets the chance to not only be that here, but do so in three nicely-nuanced roles, each representing the growth in our boy Joe. In this scene, she is the wallflower, ever in want of the open world, and she is struck by Joe’s transformation.
Is there any couple in modern cinema who have the connection on screen that these two have (had)? Moving on. It is really easy to see why the movie didn’t fare so well, though no doubt producer Steven Spielberg saw some magic in Oscar winner John Patrick Shanley‘s (Moonstruck) story. Hanks had great success with Splash and Big, two fantasy films, so him in another mystical movie alongside golden girl Ryan must have seemed a sure thing. Shanley was to direct and with Spielberg’s name attached, it was to be another hit. It wasn’t. It flopped and it would be almost 20 years before Shanley got behind the camera again.
What went wrong? Well, audiences for this film–or the way it was advertised and packaged–didn’t want, and still don’t want questions of morality, themes on the human condition, existentialism and 102 minutes of trying to figure out what it all means with their buttered popcorn. And that’s what they got. Fans of Hanks and Ryan wanted romance and light conflict with a musical montage, which they would get plenty of in later years. Instead, while it appeared the two leads were acting and performing like it was a rom-com, they spoke of suicide, betrayal, depression and death . . . along with Abe Vigoda dressed as an island tribal chieftain and a factory in New Jersey manufacturing rectal probes. It failed and became a trivia question answer about Hanks and Ryan.
Shanley was ambitious and had a vision. We can’t speak for him, but winning an Oscar must have empowered him, giving him the confidence to try and get the project up and running. Thankfully it did get made, because while it died a quick death in theaters, it has grown as a cult favorite and celebrated as a great work of existential philosophy. One of the finer works on this theme is of course, director Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, based on Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness. For those of you unfamiliar with either of these, we first hold back our urge to pull out our hair, and second, welcome you to join us in a richer more fulfilling life. Joe Versus the Volcano draws easy comparison to these works as well, as Joe takes the long journey from dark to light, facing numerous challenges, becoming enlightened and eventually learning to love. Okay, so Heart of Darkness in reverse. Still.
The film is a parable of sorts, using themes and subtle images that offer clues about the true meaning of Joe Banks and his journey. The movie even opens with a stylized placard reading “Once upon a time . . .” accompanied by what sounds like a baby’s nursery chime. Is this a fairy tale? We see Joe arrive at work, a large dingy factory with a jagged upside down lightening bolt as its logo, an image that will make numerous appearances throughout the movie in creative ways, including the very path workers must take to get to the factory. What’s that idiom, only the straight and narrow will make an honest man? Banks spends his entire adventure on the crooked path before he meets his fate. Here are only a few notable appearances of the design.
And where does Joe’s path go? The volcano, of course, which is, in terms of the fairy tale, Hell. That is Joe’s destiny for, even as he described it back at the factory, he his losing his soul, further represented by him actually losing the soul of a shoe. (Speaking of the factory, that one tribesman sure looks like he’s got a factory mask.) The deal was made after he left the fire department (more fire) and sold his life for $300 a week in the bowels of the factory. And it will ends with him jumping into the eternity of the volcano.
There are other nods to something larger in life as well. At one point, Joe and Patricia find themselves adrift in the ocean, survivors of a shipwreck. Patricia remains unconscious for much of it while Joe passes the time doing, well, Tom Hanks stuff. We believe it is just that, a montage to pad the film and give Hanks a chance to be silly, something most are expecting. It ends with the unexpected, and we realize there is a purpose to his time on the ocean, the days passing and the brutality of the sun and sea. It is Joe’s hardest lesson.
Hanks had first gained a little street cred for drama for his guest spots on the television series Family Ties, appearing as Alex Keaton’s (Michael J. Fox) alcoholic uncle. It had moments of comedy, but dealt seriously with the disease. Hanks then tried to show his range on film. First with another TV comedy legend, Jackie Gleason, in Nothing in Common, about a son trying to take care of his aggressively antagonistic father. It bombed in theaters and critics loathed it. Then, a year later he starred as a WWII RAF pilot in Every Time We Say Goodbye, a period romance piece that did not suit him well. The movie disappeared. Then of course there was Big. That changed everything. It hit all the right notes and found a good formula for Hanks. Audiences flocked. However, in Punch Line, with future Forrest Gump co-star Sally Field, he failed again to find anyone willing to accept him in a more serious role (another movie sold as a comedy that was more of a drama).
Joe Versus the Volcano didn’t fare any better. We were befuddled ourselves. We loved the visuals, the direction, the playful attitude and of course the two leads. But it was also dark and reflective, and left us asking ourselves a lot of questions. Why were there three Meg Ryan’s? Why did the natives drink orange soda? And what exactly happened on that island? Why would a romantic comedy affect us so?
John Patrick Shanley
John Patrick Shanley
Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges