“… Only a few people are awake and live in a state of constant, total amazement.”
I have what I like to call “swiss cheese” memory. Some things I remember, some things I don’t. Seeing Joe Versus The Volcano (1990) for the first time is what I consider a turning point in my young life. It was an event I remember vividly.
It was Friday night and spring was in the air. I was 13 and my mom had dropped me off to the movies with a group of friends. It was opening night and the theater was packed. It was so crowded, in fact, we were forced to sit in the second row. From the moment the movie started, I was transfixed. Mesmerized. My friends were growing restless and goofing off, throwing popcorn, gabbing. I was just lost in the movie.
When it ended, they all gave their unanimous two word review: It sucked. When I spoke up, I said, “I, umm, actually liked it.” They all looked at me, their faces scrunched up. “Really?”
And so it began. My tastes were venturing away from the mainstream and I began liking movies that had a bit of an edge to it, movies that weren’t exactly run of the mill. Maybe that was the night I became a cinephile. (Needless to say, I don’t think I hung out with this group much longer).
I don’t remember exactly what it was I loved about Joe Versus The Volcano when I was 13 years old, but I rewatched it again in high school, college and the years that followed, eventually wearing out the VHS. I bought the DVD when that became available and if I had a blu-ray player today, I’d probably own a copy of this one. Each viewing gave me something more to appreciate about it. In fact, it was Roger Ebert who said, “Every great movie should seem like new every time you see it.” (He gave this movie 3.5 stars so he could’ve been talking about this one.)
Joe Versus The Volcano is about a man who is stuck. Joe has a dead end job that drains the life out of him day after day, or better yet, the “zombie lights sucks the juice out of my eyeballs!” He practically sleepwalks to work every single damn day. He simply has no purpose.
One day, at a visit with his doctor, Joe discovers that he has a “brain cloud” and only a few months to live. When he gets the opportunity to finally do something with his life, to make life really matter, he grabs the chance.
“You have some time left, Mr. Banks. You have some life left. My advice to you is this: live it well.”
So, he quits his job (in a hilariously dramatic fashion) and begins his transformative journey to – what else? – save the Waponi-Wu island from sinking by making the ultimate sacrifice: jump in the Big Woo, their volcano.
What a long, life-affirming journey it is for Joe Banks.
The spiritual symbolism in the film gives the film much surprising depth. You’ve got your basic elements of heaven and hell, life and death. Water and fire make major appearances here, typically representing the birth and death of Joe Banks. See, Joe Versus the Volcano is not really a movie about a man who quits his job and jumps in a volcano. It’s about a man who searches for the meaning of life. The characters and obstacles he comes across on his journey represent good and evil, and the path of righteousness is never a straight line. The crooked lightning symbol that appears several times in the film is reflective of the path that which Joe begins his soul-repairing adventure.
First, Joe meets Marshall (a sublime Ossie Davis), a limo driver who makes sure Joe is well-prepared. Marshall is essentially a guardian angel, feeding Joe knowledge and tools that will be necessary for a successful trip. Samuel Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges), the devil incarnate who orchestrated the whole adventure in an effort to profit from Joe’s depression, sends him off to Waponi-Wu island, enlisting his nefarious daughter Angelica (Meg Ryan) to ensure Joe’s path is not steered off-course. Joe resists the temptations of Angelica and instead falls for her sister Patricia (also Ryan), who is troubled by her own deal she made with her father. Together, Joe and Patricia break free of their selfish natures and realize that life is about caring for others and learning to appreciate what you’ve been given. It’s also about confronting your fears and taking risks; don’t let life idly pass you by. After meeting the Waponis (led by Abe Vigoda), who aren’t willing sacrifice themselves for the island and are too absorbed by consumerism, the couple has a epiphany. “Nobody knows, Joe. But we’ll see. We’ll take this jump, and we’ll see. That’s life, right?”
So together, in the end, they resist the devil’s temptations, commit the ultimate act of selflessness, face their fears, and leap into the Big Woo. Since they have found the true meaning of life, the fire (death) spits them out and hurls them into the ocean (birth). We see them off beginning their life anew with a refreshed view of the world.
“I know he can get the job, but can he do the job? I’m not arguing with you!”
No buts about it, this movie tanked. It was a blip in the long, storied career of Tom Hanks, and stunted the rise of Meg Ryan’s stardom. I don’t think people got it. Perhaps the audience couldn’t get past the scenario of a man who travels to an island of Waponis and jumps into a volcano. It sounds like it should be funny, but I wouldn’t classify Joe Versus the Volcano as a straightforward comedy. Writer-director John Patrick Shanley does not really play this movie for laughs, but rather, for the heart. This is Shanley’s first effort as a director (his second is the terrific Doubt, from ’08), but Shanley is most notably a very successful playwright. And the man definitely has a way with words. Some of the dialogue from this movie really digs deep.
And as I outlined above, Joe Versus the Volcano is about something. The film takes chances. It doesn’t get lazy. Every scene is loaded with all kinds of symbolism — some heavy-handed, some subtle. For instance, the books that Joe takes with him as he leave his job pretty much outline the themes of his journey: Robinson Crusoe (self-discovery), Romeo and Juliet (true love) and Homer’s Odyssey (heroism). As he left his job, Joe was ready to tackle these elements. Shanley really knew how to convey his themes into the movie. But it only worked for those who looked for them.
Shanley also assembles a remarkable cast, including Dan Hedaya as Joe’s boss (“You watch it, mister! There’s a woman in here!”), Robert Stack as the doctor who was paid off to diagnose him with a ridiculous disease (Patricia: “You were diagnosed with a brain cloud, and you didn’t bother to ask for a second opinion?”), and Meg Ryan in not one but three roles. She does solid work here, though I wouldn’t say her roles here are among her best. Her chemistry with Hanks, though, is sorely missed this day and age. Like Douglas and Turner, I wish they would make more movies together.
And Tom Hanks sells this movie. He made this after Big but it would be 3 years before he wins his first Oscar. I think Joe Banks was his last truly “offbeat” character before he turned serious (though his role in The Ladykillers was an inspired choice, it just didn’t gel). Funny thing is, though, I think Hanks would be just as good as Joe Banks today, as he was 21 years ago. Maybe even better.
The bottom line is this: Joe Versus the Volcano awakens the soul. It’s a feel good movie in every sense of the term. The scene with Joe on the raft staring up at the moon, marveling at the beauty of it, is about as life-affirming as anything I’ve seen on a movie screen. “God, thank you for my life,” he exclaims.
And John Patrick Shanley, thank you for Joe Versus the Volcano.
“May you live to be a thousand years old, sir.”