Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of “Joe Versus the Volcano” when it came out. And if I’m remembering correctly, I’m not sure anybody reviewing way back then did either.
But if Hollywood was ever going to indulge anybody with “writer” attached to his name, John Patrick Shanley after the Oscar-winning glories of “Moonstruck” was that guy. Just a couple of years before this 1990 indulgence, he’d given one of the most quotable Oscar acceptance speeches ever, after all.
“I’d like to thank everybody who ever punched or kissed me in my life and everybody who I ever punched or kissed.”
And if a major studio’s going to give a talent like Shanley — he went on to write and direct “Doubt,” which introduced Viola Davis to stardom — a blank check, you had to expect he’d make something akin to “Brazil,” “Toys” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” a semi-pretentious fable about finding the meaning of life, or at least a little of the joy that’s supposed to come with it.
He convinced Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, just hitting their peaks, and Nathan Lane and Abe Vidoga and Lloyd Bridges and Ossie Davis and Robert Stack and Amanda Plummer and Carol Kane to sign on, an “Airplane!” load of comic talent. That’s the sort of juice Shanley had.
The story? The titular Joe Banks (Hanks) is an office drone in job that is drudgery itself. He’s a hypochondriac who has failed to get anything out of life and failed to even figure out what it is he’s supposed to have gotten out of life.
He can’t even see the cute swan at work, DeDe (Ryan, for the first time) who masquerades as an ugly duckling.
When he gets a mysterious diagnosis for what ails him — “brain fog” — by a sketchy doctor lent all the authority Robert Stack can give him, he first realizes his time on Earth is short.
But then a sketchier tycoon (Lloyd Bridges, a giggle) confronts him with an offer — lots of money to do something with the rest of his life. He’d like for Joe to volunteer to make a sacrificial jump into a South Pacific island’s volcano, to keep the native Waponi — a peculiar tribe with Vaudeville, Little Italy and Borsht Belt origins — placated so that the rich man can continue to extract a valuable minerals from the island.
Joe is doomed, but a big shopping spree, being chauffeured around New York by Ossie Davis, and an “adventure” in the bargain should be suitable compensation for his sacrifice.
Ossie’s a highlight of this “See New York for the first time” sequence. So is Barry McGovern, playing the ultimate unctuous “gentleman’s” salesman, selling Cadillac-priced steamer-trunks to the well-traveled.
“Have you thought much about luggage, Mr. Banks?”
“It’s the central preoccupation of my life.”
A blousy Angelino named Angelina, and then a seagaring gal named Patricia (Ryan and Ryan one more time) will guide Joe from the West Coast southward into the Pacific.
And then he’ll meet his date with destiny among “natives” straight out of “Gilligan’s Island,” with a healthy dose of shtick, thanks to a witchdoctor played by Nathan Lane and a bored-with-it-all chief ( Abe Vigoda).
Patricia, being the sailor who stands to inherit the schooner Tweedle Dee that’s taking them into the South Seas after delivering Joe, is the Message of the Movie, a message embodied by Meg Ryan at her most approachably radiant.
“My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.”
Joe and Patricia are destined to fall in love, come what may. And that fate? It will be faced as a couple.
“Joe, nobody knows anything. We’ll take this leap and we’ll see. We’ll jump and we’ll see. That’s life!“
Ryan had a knack for making us buy into almost every leading-man pairing of her career. And her future “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail” co-star must have seen that and made damned sure they were repaired in better films over the next decade.
One could imagine that Kevin Kline, Matthew Broderick, Val Kilmer, Tim Robbins, Hugh Jackman and Andy Garcia figured out what Billy Crystal beat them all to the punch about. The real challenge in acting opposite Ryan from the late ’80s into the early 2000s was in not falling in love with her the way your character did, the way audiences did.
Perhaps a tell-all book or two will break that spell, but all I could think of watching her interactions in different guises with Hanks is “They don’t give Oscars for that, and they should.”
“Joe” bombed when it came out, arriving to middling-to-bad reviews. And this was AFTER the studio got Shanley to reshoot and re-cut the ending. But seeing it and forgetting it over the ensuing decades allows one the luxury of relishing the dark early moments, gives a finer appreciation of the “Brewster’s Millions” shopping spree and makeover, allows a renewed kick in seeing Ryan in three guises and the unalloyed slap-in-the-face-with-a-mackeral that is that tropical hoot of a finale.
The corniest stuff still plays, the sight gags — Joe and Patricia shipwrecked, using his super-expensive steamer trunks as a raft — still amuse and the stars still let the sparkle simmer on low heat.
Most of the people involved with “Joe” would go on to bigger or at least better things. And the movie’s Big Theme kept coming back. You could see it in Ben Stiller’s glorious “Start living life” vanity project, “Walter Mitty,” in the Simon Pegg bomb “Hector and the Search for Happiness.”
Truth be told, the male existential crisis plot has rarely worked, from “The Razor’s Edge” onward. But “Lost in Translation” and “About Schmidt” got by. And the female version rarely played, unless it’s Julia Roberts who craves the chance to “Eat, Pray Love” or Reese Witherspoon is the one willing to wander into the “Wild.”
One still gets the feeling, after all these years, that the “Volcano” got the best of Joe and John Patrick Shanley. But removed from its time, disconnected from the need to draw an audience and earn back its budget, it’s still something to see. Expensive folly or charming stab at the Hollywood version of the “Meaning of Life” — meet and let yourself fall in love with Meg Ryan — I’d call this one of a “classic” of its type.
That “type” is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.
Rating: PG, thematic material
Cast: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Ossie Davis, Lloyd Bridges, Amanda Plummer, Robert Stack, Nathan Lane, Carol Kane and Abe Vigoda.
Credits: Scripted and directed by John Patrick Shanley. A Warner Bros. release on Amazon, Tubi, etc.
Running time: 1:42