"I take orders from the Octoboss."

Joe Versus the Volcano

I have been sort of aware of JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO since its release in 1990, but never decided to actually see it until now. I know it was poorly received at the time, and somewhat infamous for a time, and also that it was staunchly defended by Roger Ebert, and beloved by a select few – I most associate the movie with Bright Wall, Dark Room editor Chad Perman, who talks about it similar to how I talk about BLADE.

It’s pretty different from what I pictured, especially in the beginning. This is an Amblin production that starts out feeling way more Terry Gilliam than Steven Spielberg. That’s not enough to make me one of those people who swears by it, but it seems crazy to me that anybody hated it! 

It’s the story of Joe Banks (Tom Hanks, precariously perched between TURNER & HOOCH and THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES in his filmography), a depressed hyopchondriac working miserably as a clerk at a Staten Island rectal probe factory that looks like a dystopian prison. Every day the employees do a slow sort of death march through the gates to the entrance (I liked that they were forced to walk further by an inexplicably zig-zagged path, though I can’t say I grasp the significance of this shape being a reoccurring symbol throughout the movie).

Joe’s office is grey and lit by flourescent lights, soul-deadening despite some German expressionist angles and forced perspective. His desk is tucked away in a room full of pipes and valves, but his asshole boss Mr. Waturi (Dan Hedaya, BLOOD SIMPLE, of course) won’t even let him put a hula-themed lamp on his desk to lighten the mood.

In my opinion the movie has much more personality than this poster indicates, as nicely painted as it is by John Alvin.

He always feels sick, but no doctor can figure out what’s wrong with him what’s wrong until Dr. Ellison (Robert Stack, a few years into creeping us the fuck out on Unsolved Mysteries) diagnoses him with an incurable “brain cloud” that he says has no symptoms but will kill him in a few months. Joe takes this pretty well and it becomes kind of a wish-fulfillment fantasy as he can finally live his life without fear.

First up: quitting his job and telling off his boss. This impresses co-worker DeDe (Meg Ryan, TOP GUN) enough to go on a date with him, which goes great until he tells her about the terminal diagnosis, and then she bails. (I mean… he’s asking alot.) Oh well, I guess Meg Ryan was just kind of a guest star in this one.

Then a goofball rich CEO guy called Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges, HIGH NOON) shows up at his house. He has one of those typical rich guy problems: his superconductors require a rare mineral found on a tiny island where he needs permission from the natives to mine. Anyway, long story short, he’ll give Joe all the money he needs to live it up for the next couple weeks if he’ll fly to this island and throw himself in a volcano for the hundred year sacrifice to the fire gods. Sure, why not?

It seems like Joe has spent so much time being crushed by his shitty job that he hasn’t put any thought into what he wants now that he’s free of it. But he has this money so he gets driven around in a limo to buy clothes and luggage for the trip. His chauffeur Marshall (Ossie Davis, following up a run of AVENGING ANGEL, SCHOOL DAZE and DO THE RIGHT THING) seems suspicious and annoyed when Joe asks him which department store to go to. His objection turns out to be philosophical.

“Clothes make the man. I believe that,” he says. “You say to me you want to go shopping, you want to buy clothes, but you don’t know what kind. You leave that hanging in the air, like I’m going to fill in the blank. That to me is like asking me who you are, and I don’t know who you are, I don’t want to know. It’s taken me my whole life to find out who I am, and I’m tired now, you hear what I’m saying?”

Of course it should be noted that the wise old Black man can be a condescending trope, especially when he’s working in somewhat of a servant role, but Davis pretty much steals the movie for a while, and in my opinion maintains his dignity when he ends trying on tuxedos with Joe but asserts his preference to return to his family for dinner instead of become Joe’s buddy for hire or something.

Joe also buys luggage from a salesman (Barry McGovern, BRAVEHEART) who takes the job very seriously and sells him huge waterproof trunks that will be important throughout the movie. And he gets a haircut (from Carol Kane in a brief, pseudonymously credited cameo). I usually don’t feel this way, but I liked him better with the mullet.

He flies to L.A. to begin the boat trip to Waponi Woo, and is met by Graynamore’s daughter Angelica (hold the phone, it’s Meg Ryan, AMITYVILLE 3-D), who I think is the funniest character in the movie. Ryan’s DeDe already seemed like a rare instance of her doing a comical shtick, but Angelica is a more extreme one with a funny voice and weird conversations sometimes involving her recitation of her poetry. When she hands him off to her half sister Patricia (Meg Ryan, “Megan Harper,” two episodes of Charles in Charge), who will captain the yacht for the actual journey (with help from Amanda Plummer, MIMIC 3: SENTINEL), I was a little disappointed to realize the one he was gonna fall for was just the normal Meg Ryan persona. I don’t know, I realize Angelica is kind of an idiot, but she’s fun. I like her. Maybe you should give her a chance, Joe.

Patricia is a normal human, hates her dad, is troubled by her privilege and trying to make it without her family’s money, and at first doesn’t like Joe but is won over, so in that sense it becomes more like a standard rom-com. But I don’t think YOU’VE GOT MAIL has them get in a shipwreck and barely survive a harrowing ordeal adrift on a raft made of luggage. I’ve still somehow never seen CASTAWAY, so this part reminded me of CABIN BOY, which upped the ante by having its protagonist hallucinate a talking cupcake puppet that spits tobacco on him. But obviously it wouldn’t be fair to expect every movie to reach those heights.

They do make it to the island and I think we can all admit that the Waponis are, at best, a condescending portrait of a fictional Pacific Islander indigenous culture. They wear facepaint and clothing made of leaves and feathers like some Amazon tribe, but their chief is played by Abe Vigoda (THE STUFF) and another more show-offy character is played by Nathan Lane (TITAN A.E.). I didn’t spot him, but apparently Branscombe Richmond is also there, uncredited. This guy, in about three years he managed to show up in this, LICENCE TO KILL, CAGE, HARD TO KILL, THE PERFECT WEAPON, SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO, HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN, THE TAKING OF BEVERLY HILLS, CURLY SUE, GRAND CANYON and many other movies and TV shows. That’s a prolific period right there. Getting alot of work in to prepare him for 1992, when he would portray “Terrifying Clown #1” in BATMAN RETURNS and “Rapist” in ACES: IRON EAGLE III.

In the end when SPOILER they realize that Joe’s been taking medical advice from a phony and is not in fact close to death, it honestly seemed to me like a really sad ending for a minute there. The idea is that now he’s in love and no longer shackled to his shitty job that made him unhappy, and he gets to keep on living and it’s great. But first I thought oh no, if he’s not dying, he can’t live so care free anymore. The magic will be gone. The spell will be lifted. Maybe you need a plan of throwing yourself in volcano for corporate America if you want to really live. I hope not.

Some of the people behind the scenes are interesting. It’s shot by Stephen Goldblatt, the d.p. of THE COTTON CLUB, LETHAL WEAPON and, uh, BATMAN FOREVER and BATMAN & ROBIN. And there are some people who would work on a bunch of Tim Burton movies: production designer Bo Welch, art director Tom Duffield, costume designer Colleen Atwood, set designer Rick Heinrichs. That makes sense because, although I don’t think it’s on the level of Burton’s best, it comes from that same admirable belief that visual style, production value and a strongly controlled tone are allowed in a comedy.

I assumed JOE’s years of bad reputation was the result of poor box office, but it didn’t do that bad – made more than it cost, at least. It opened against HOUSE PARTY and made more money (but on a way bigger budget, obviously). It hung around near the top of the charts for a few weeks but when TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES came out it pretty much was nunchakad and pizzad out of existence.

Maybe it’s because, like KING KONG VS. GODZILLA and FREDDY VS. JASON, the ending is a little ambiguous about whether Joe or the volcano technically wins. I’m sure volcano fans were disappointed at the time, but fuck ‘em. Maybe if I knew more about lava I would have more nitpicks, but this is definitely a movie with its own tone and vibe and ideas about how to stay positive in a world of unrelenting shittiness, and that’s a good thing to have in this world.

Writer/director John Patrick Shanley started as a playwright, then had quick success as a screenwriter, considering he won the best original screenplay Oscar for his second movie, MOONSTRUCK. This came three years later, and did not exactly kick off a prolific directorial career. He continued to write for the stage and screen (most notably ALIVE and CONGO) but his big comeback wasn’t until 2005 when his play Doubt: A Parable won four Tony awards and a Pulitzer. In 2008 he finally returned to directing with the Oscar-nominated adaptation of the play starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis. Recently he shot a new one called WILD MOUNTAIN THYME, which will be only his third movie as a director.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 9th, 2020 at 2:50 pm and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Reviews, Romance. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “Joe Versus the Volcano”

  1. I always had a fondness for this movie. I love the weird touches like the luggage salesman and the three performances by Meg Ryan among other things.

    This was the only good movie that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan did together. Sleepless in Seattle is dopey (Meg Ryan’s character is legit insane in that one, if you really look at her behavior) and You’ve Got Mail is straight up awful (Nora Ephron just way too unbound and unchecked with all the pat observations about gender differences). I’ll take JOE over either of those any day.

  2. I often get the feeling that this is “the forgotten Tom Hanks movie”. Even BACHELOR PARTY, THE MAN WITH ONE RED SHOE and his “OMG, Dungeons & Dragons is killing your kids, y’all!” movies seem to run more often on TV or are easier available on home video and streaming. At least over here. Which is too bad, because I really wanna watch it. Ever since the VHS days people keep recommending it to me.

  3. Aw man, I don’t know. I feel like sometimes an old semi-forgotten movie like this gets watched and reviewed with a warm (unearned?) glow of nostalgia wrapped around it. And maybe that alone would make it worth a watch in 2020. But in 1990 it was not very well-received, and those I knew who saw it, including me, all seemed to agree with that general consensus. It was the very definition of “meh” brought to movie form, and neither 30 years nor the Tom Hanks renaissance ever made me want to watch it again. A delightful pair of lead actors, though.

  4. I saw this a few years after it came out, so I already knew it had a rep for being bad/dumb. A friend loved it and showed it to me and I loved it as well. I’m not sure why it got such a bad rep. Maybe just expectations? It wasn’t what people thought it was going to be, or what they wanted. I dunno. It’s type of weirdness is right up my alley. I am in wholehearted agreement about fluorescent lighting sucking your soul out through your eyes.

  5. At one point, this was the weirdest movie I ever saw in the theater. It was sold simply as the new movie from that guy you loved in BIG, and instead it was…this. I believe the first viewing merely confused me, but eventually I realized I loved it. Subsequent viewings as an adult only confirmed what an ahead-of-its-time piece of work it was.

    Also I’m pretty sure that for a brief period “stuck on a raft in the middle of the ocean with Meg Ryan” was how I wanted to die. I think I must have hit puberty right in the middle of the movie because about halfway through she went from “that goofy chick with the 1980s Assistant DA mullet in INNERSPACE” to the most beautiful creature I had ever beheld. Luckily the crush only lasted a few years but for a minute there it was a problem.

    Anyway, JOE V VOLCANO: BRAIN CLOUD OF JUSTICE is a great movie. Better even than TURNER V HOOCH and WHEN HARRY V SALLY in some ways. It’s whimsical in a way that doesn’t make me want to incinerate baby pandas, which is a pretty amazing achievement in my opinion.

  6. I’d love to get a CASTAWAY review sometime. I would think it holds up pretty well, egregious Fed Ex product placement notwithstanding.

  7. Johnny Utah… revisit it. I guess most of us were in our teens or just out when it was released and it definitely was not what those of us of a certain ages wanted or expected from a Hanks movie at the time… but I think that is exactly why he did it… it is s,art, weird, mordantly funny and the epitome of a writer/directors vision… which with comedy, outside of the boob and dick joke and improv and viagra set… has always been rare… pretty much outside of Woody Allen and Blake Edwards…

  8. For some reason I always thought this was a Joe Dante movie. Been decades but I remember liking this one.

  9. geoffreyjar- I also always thought this was a Joe Dante movie! I have no idea why I thought that! But MOONSTRUCK is one of my absolute all time favorite screenplays, so I should probably check this one out one of these days.

  10. Castaway isn’t an action movie, but from memory the plane crash was a pretty solid action sequence.

    As for Joe versus the Volcano, I only saw it once, but I remember really liking parts of it and also finding the tone of it jarring at points so I constantly had the experience of being detached and distracted from the movie.

  11. Whenever I write a script and a character has to have an nonessential phone conversation that is to be interrupted, the character is always saying the Dan Hedaya side of the conversation “I’m not arguing that with you!”

    For my next, though, I’ll make it the other side of that conversation, for the creation of the Joe Cinematic Universe

  12. The, er, buzz on Wild Mountain Thyme makes it sound like three might be all the dude gets. As far as this one goes, I was in the “guess whimsy + death doesn’t always equal Tim Burton” camp when I saw it as a teen, but there probably weren’t enough characters in black overcoats for my liking. Maybe I’ll revisit it, seems like a good one for this year.

    And speaking of good ones for this year, yeah, bring on the Cast Away review!

  13. I have only seen a brief part of this on TV, the office sequence, which was Brazilian and good-natured it seemed so I quickly turned off the TV and put it on my To Watch In Its Entirety list for later. That was 10-15 years ago and I have not followed up. It is never on cable, or streaming, and that is annoying.

    I like BRAZIL, and some other Gilliam movies, at least in theory, but they always seem to work better as brief comedy sketches strung together than as real movies that are enjoyable as a whole. I have seen BRAZIL probably 4 times and it just doesn’t get better on repeat viewings, and I have recently watched or rewatched TIME BANDITS, ERIC THE VIKING, and JABBERWOCKY, and none of them really work either except for brief segments of inspired visuals and quIrkiness. I hope this one stands up a little better, I will have to rent it with the wife ASAP.

  14. ERIC THE VIKING is Terry Jones rather than Gilliam. When I first saw it I would have said that, while it has some good qualities, it misses the mark on a fundamental level none of Gilliam’s films do. But since then we’ve had Gilliam’s 21st Century films, and I don’t think I can say that any more.

  15. Ah yes, sorry Terry Jones. ERIK THE VIKING does stick out among those as the most Monty Python-ish, though JABBERWOCKY is really similar and just as bad in a “something is a little off here” kind of way.

    I tried to watch CABIN BOY years ago and had to turn it off. Maybe I should try again.

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