Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) / Comedy-Romance

MPAA Rated: PG for language
Running Time: 97 min.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges, Abe Vigoda, Dan Hedaya, Robert Stack, Amanda Plummer, Ossie Davis, Carol Kane, Nathan Lane
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Screenplay: John Patrick Shanley
Review published April 24, 2014

Joe Versus the Volcano ranks among a very select category of movies that miss the mark in terms of quality, but which has an unmistakably appealing nature that makes you like it despite it.  While I can't quite proclaim it to be a good film, as the comedy isn't very funny, and the romance never really convincing, there is just something about the mix of oddball visuals, strange music, and off-the-wall characters that fascinates on a level beyond the level of good vs. bad in terms of entertainment value.  Yes, this is cult film territory, where you either love it, or it misses you altogether, and while it does miss me, it comes close enough for me to feel the breeze as it whooshed over my head.

Tom Hanks (The 'burbs, Big) is Joe Banks, a dispirited employee living a repressed life, especially in a dead end job that offers little individuality or freedom.  Joe always feels sick, earning him the reputation of a hypochondriac, but on his latest visit to the doctor, he is diagnosed with a "brain cloud", which the doctor (Robert Stack) tells him means he has only months left to live.  Out of the blue, he is approached by a wealthy businessman (Lloyd Bridges) with a proposition: live out his remaining days in luxury on condition that he jump into a mystic island volcano, as a sacrifice to keep it from blowing the island, and its native inhabitants, to smithereens.  Joe takes a trip to the island, but along the way, he begins to have feelings for Patricia, a relative of the rich man who might be a little late in the romance department, as Joe is slated to his final destiny very soon.

With a wealth of motifs and recurring images, it's clear that this is a thematic fable, the gist of which probably resides more clearly in the mind of writer-director John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck, Five Corners) yhan is evidenced through the course of the movie itself.  The jagged pattern which appears several times throughout the movie -- the walkway to Joe's workplace, the pattern on his wall, the lightning which hits the boat, and the way to the volcano's apex -- all suggest a connectivity of everything in Joe's life.  Is it the imprint of his doom?  Is it a symbol of the hardships of life?  Is it a sign he is fated for this journey?  Many theories present themselves, but speculating on what it means is half of the fun in this oddity of a film.  I haven't even mentioned that every one of Joe's love interests in this film is Meg Ryan (City of Angels, Courage Under Fire), who plays three separate characters with different looks and personalities.

Although allusions abound, notably to Homer and other epic works, Joe Versus the Volcano feels like a different sort of film than most romantic comedies before or since.  There is an element of the surreal in almost every scene, which makes it a film that is often fascinating.  And yet, despite all of these wonderful qualities, and the novelty of this being the first of three films that paired Hanks and Ryan in romantic comedy roles (Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail are the others), there is a feeling that Joe is a rough draft to what might have been a more fully realized film that never had a chance to develop. The comedy is fairly juvenile -- the island tribesmen have a thing for orange soda, Joe putts golf balls on the floating luggage, etc. -- and little of it strikes as particularly amusing.  The magical qualities of the film seem more absurd than resonant, with a wavering tone that makes you wonder whether or not this is a serious endeavor or just an ambitious lark.

Mileage will most certainly vary as to how much viewers will relate to Joe Versus the Volcano, and I feel caught somewhere in the middle.  I would love to embrace it, and yet I feel a distance toward it, as it lured me in with its symbolism, but the frequent lapse into silly gags kept me from taking it in as important enough try to put it all together.  As far as misfires go, Joe at least succeeds at being an ambitious work, but like most works of high ambition, the end result just isn't as satisfying as the intended goal of the outset.  I wouldn't recommended this to most, but it is still worth a peek for any who like offbeat films.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo