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Joe Versus the Volcano

Joe Versus the Volcano (JVTV), though praised by notable reviewers such as Roger Ebert at the time of its release in 1990, was generally considered a box office flop, and one of Tom Hanks’ minor films. Since then, it has accumulated something of a cult following by film aficionados who consider the metaphors and images in the film significant and enduring in their beauty and significance.

Story (caution, spoilers):

Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) is a downtrodden everyman, working in an oppressive factory for an oppressive boss (Dan Hedaya). He is chronically ill, and finds no enjoyment in his existence. One day, he visits a new doctor (Robert Stack), and is told he is dying of a mysterious "brain cloud" - a condition, ironically enough, that has not been causing his chronic feelings of poor health, but will kill him in a matter of months. He asks the doctor what he should do. The doctor suggests, "you have some time left to you, Mr. Banks, live it well." Joe returns to work with a new perspective, promptly quits his job, tells his boss off, and asks his mousey, but attractive, former co-worker (Meg Ryan) out on a date. The date goes well, but after she finds out he is dying, she leaves.

The next day, Joe is visited in his apartment by a wealthy industrialist (Lloyd Bridges) who has a proposition for him. There is a small Pacific island inhabited by a tribe of quirky natives. They have a mineral the industrialist needs for one of his products, but won't sell. They will, however, trade him for something. They believe that the volcano on their island must be appeased with a voluntary human sacrifice once every century. The trouble is none of them is willing to do it. If the industrialist can provide them with a willing sacrifice, they will give him the mineral. And so the industrialist, having heard of Joe's situation, offers Joe the opportunity to "live like a king, die like a hero." He will give Joe unlimited spending, 5-star accommodations, and a yacht trip to the island, if he will throw himself into the volcano. Joe agrees.

Joe spends a day and night on the town in New York, where he receives stylistic and self-analytical assistance from a wise chauffeur (Ossie Davis), and purchases many expensive items, including steamer trunks and a tuxedo. He then flies first class to Los Angeles, where he is met by one of the industrialist's daughters, Angelica (also Meg Ryan), who typifies the stereotypes of both L.A. shallowness, and a child of wealth who's only identity is represented by her attachment to her parent's money. Finally he is brought to the yacht, captained by the industrialist’s other daughter Patricia (also, also Meg Ryan), which will ferry him to the island.

The ocean voyage starts out well enough, and an emotional connection begins to form between Joe and Patricia. All is interrupted when a typhoon strikes, and the yacht is sunk. Joe rescues Patricia, and fashions a raft out of his steamer trunks. Patricia has been hurt, and does not regain consciousness for many days, while Joe rations out the small amount of fresh water he had with him only to her. Finally Patricia awakens, and they find that they have arrived at their destination, Waponi Wu.

The Waponis, who are a bizarre cultural mix of Polynesian, Hebrew, Roman, and other influences, treat them to a grand feast before the ceremony. The chief asks his people one last time if anyone else will volunteer, but none will. Joe heads for the Volcano to the adoration of the tribes people, but Patricia tries to stop him, declaring her love for him. He admits he loves her as well, “but the timing stinks.” He is still dying after all.

Patricia gets the Chief to marry them, and then decides to join Joe in his jump, because of her love and faith in him. They jump in, only to be blown out and to the ocean by the eruption of the volcano. The island sinks, but Joe and Patricia find the luggage raft again, and are saved. Upon discussion, Patricia realizes that the doctor Joe saw who gave him the terminal diagnosis was a pawn of her father’s, and must have been lying. Joe must not be dying, and they can live happily ever after. Joe points out that they are still stranded on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Patricia concludes, lovingly, that “it’s always going to be something with you, isn’t it, Joe?”

Analysis (plenty more spoilers):

JVTV is one of those wildly underappreciated films that film-buffs love to cherish and personalize in the face of the general disregard of the public and critics. It is a writer’s movie, evident in the multilayered metaphors and recurring images that pop up throughout. As it was the directorial debut of John Patrick Shanley, the award winning writer of Moonstruck, it is easy to see where the witty dialogue and interesting characters came from, and why there is so much depth to what on the surface is a simple romantic comedy.

JVTV is also the first teaming of frequent film partners Tom Hanks (before he was really, really BIG), and Meg Ryan (ditto). Their chemistry is already evident here, and the fact that they spend so much time on screen together helps make the movie. Meg Ryan shows talent at caricature that we rarely get to see elsewhere, in playing three separate roles. DeDe, the mousey coworker, has a thick New York accent, and a charming shyness. Angelica, the dependant L.A. industrialist’s daughter seems like she would be right at home shopping on Rodeo Drive, but gives us strong hints of dissatisfaction at her meaningless existence. And Patricia, the aggressively independent daughter, still smarting at realizing even she has a price, is a breath of fresh air, adventurous and full of life, but still lonely and looking for something. There is a running gag throughout the film where Joe remarks to each of them that when he first saw them, he felt he had seen them somewhere before. It is good for a laugh on the surface, but it also makes you think – in a way, all three characters are the same person, but it is only the one who has found herself – truly knows herself, who is actually ready to love.

Tom Hanks plays the affable everyman he has come to be so well-loved for. Joe has had an epiphany, been woken up, and in an almost Forrest Gump-like way, is experiencing the world through un-jaded eyes for the first time in a long time. Through the journey, he re-discovers himself, his bravery and sense of purpose, and shows no fear about what he must do. It is only then that he, too, is ready to love another. There is quite a bit of the physical humor that Hanks was known for in his earlier comedies, but also the first inklings of the emotional depth and character development that would make him a true star later on.

Recurring themes and images also play a big part in the charm and significance of the movie. A jagged road or thunderbolt image shows up in a company logo, plaster damage in Joe’s apartment, the lightning bolt that destroys Patricia’s boat, and the path to the volcano. It also represents Joe’s journey, and more generally, the crooked path of life that we all walk. Other recurring images include ducks, the façade of the factory, dogs, and the moon. They all help to reinforce the idea that, while the film itself is something of a fairy tale (after all, it does begin with “Once Upon a Time”), it is possible to find and recognize the common themes in our own lives as well.

Conclusion (possibly a few more spoilers):

Joe Versus the Volcano is a charming, heartfelt fairy tale of a film, crafted by a writer who was given full reign by his director to indulge himself in both character and metaphor. It helped of course that they were the same person. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, along with a strong supporting cast (look for Carol Kane, Amanda Plummer, Abe Vigoda and Nathan Lane all in small parts), turn in performances that show them at their best, and do the material proud. The production design is brightly colored, and hyper-realistic in a way that lets us know it is a fairy tale, but keeps us connected with the reality of the story and the characters. JVTV is a film that has been overlooked, but deserves a second chance to win an audience. It is full of humor, warmth, and deeper meaning, and should be enjoyed and discussed for a long time.



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