We did Joe Versus the Volcano wrong, and, by extension, ourselves wrong. The 1989 film was drubbed by critics as “flat” and a “wan bit of whimsy.” Even with its generous reappraisal over the next three decades, it still sits at only 61% on Rotten Tomatoes. It was actually a modest box office success, but it earned the reputation as a flop. The writer and director, John Patrick Shanley (who earned the gig after winning an Oscar for penning Moonstruck), became Hollywood kryptonite. He didn’t direct another film for nearly two decades.
It’s a damn tragedy of cinema Shanley disappeared, because Joe Versus the Volcano is something special. It’s hard to categorize: a screwball romantic comedy tinged with fantasy, perhaps; a true sui generis triumph. It’s the first of the three legendary pairings of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, romcom juggernauts, though even in that manner it’s a surprise: Ryan plays three different characters who serve as romantic partners to Hanks during different phases of his journey.
The film opens with Joe Banks (Hanks) entering his soul-sucking, factory-like office and encountering some truly dreary working conditions. This opening is absolutely magnificent; if you had told me Shanley was a playwright who had never directed a film before, I wouldn’t have believed you for an instant. It’s so cinematic.
We follow the employees like worker ants scuttling into a hole. It’s Tati-esque, and almost Expressionistic, crafting a heightened and mutated reality that is borderline dystopian. Shanley spends the rest of the film crafting different flavors of this tone, never letting it settle into a comfortable rhythm.
After Banks is diagnosed with “brain cloud” and given six months to live, he has a liberating breakdown, quitting his job and accepting a modest proposal from a billionaire (Lloyd Bridges): Become a human sacrifice for the natives of a tiny tropical island filled with valuable minerals; and, in exchange, the billionaire will fund his travel and luxurious final days.
Joe Versus the Volcano walks a razor’s edge: It is anarchic and exaggerated, but more earnest than wacky, at least until the final half hour where it teeters a bit too far into silliness; just a bit, though. It’s really that last half hour why I mark the film just a hair’s breadth short of a masterpiece. Without spoiling some of the surprises, they lean too far into the blatantly fantastical and baldly satirical — just wait until you see what this movie has to say about orange soda.
Shanley is a playwright by profession, so of course his script is absolutely terrific. The dialogue has a distinct cadence to it: It’s rat-a-tat, with some motifs and turns of phrase cycling, occasionally pausing for flourishes on unexpected topics. My favorite might be a poetic tribute to luggage by a salesman (Barry McGovern): “If I had the need and the wherewithal, Mr. Banks, this would be my trunk of choice.” After Joe buys four of them, the salesman replies: “May you live to be a thousand years, sir.” Just beautiful.
His direction is just as good, though: Even beyond the riveting opening, the camera places us in unique, oddly-shaped spaces, filled with unexpected people and props. There’s a lamp at Joe’s office that I desperately want to place in my own home office. The aforementioned luggage are things of crystalline beauty despite being so geometrically simple, and they get tremendous play throughout the story.
Shanley occasionally indulges in larger-than-life images that look they come from a picture book or an album cover or a Méliès short: There’s one shot (really two) of the moon that rightfully gets used in all of the marketing, and a hazy purple pre-storm sky that feels apocalyptic.
The cast does some terrific work bringing life to the material. Hanks is great as Joe, modulating his neurosis and idealism in a way that fits the material perfectly. It’s no surprise, but still a delight, that he makes the big swings of the story feel plausible. Ryan is great, too: Even when she talks in a funny voice as meek secretary DeDe, she brings electric chemistry. The supporters are grand all around; the one I’ll remember best is Ossie Davis as sage chauffeur Marshall.
What I love most of all about Joe Versus the Volcano is that it never leaves any doubt that Shanley believes in his material. Despite its heightened reality, it is genuinely inspiring. Moving, even. It’s the kind of movie that can motivate you to quit your job and pursue your dreams, even if they’re something as ludicrous as diving into a volcano.
- Review Project: Tom Hanks Retrospective