Wednesday, March 23, 2011
In Defense Of: Joe Versus The Volcano
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.)
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.
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?"
"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.
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.
And John Patrick Shanley, thank you for Joe Versus the Volcano.
"May you live to be a thousand years old, sir."