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25 Years Later: Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)

Tim here. When Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan were paired off in 1998's instantly-dated time capsule You've Got Mail, the ad campaign – and, indeed, the entire film production – hinged on the can't miss idea that everybody would be thrilled to have another chance to see the stars of Sleepless in Seattle in a romantic comedy. What nobody seemed to recall at the time was that You've Got Mail was, in fact, the third team-up for Hanks and Ryan, not the second. Their first collaboration was the underperforming fantasy comedy Joe Versus the Volcano, which opened 25 years ago today, and has spent the subsequent quarter of a century assembling a smallish cult that hasn't remotely completed the task of restoring its reputation.

As a longtime member of that cult, I find that horribly disappointing. Joe Versus the Volcano is nobody's idea of a flawless film comedy, but it has the undeniable merit of being incredibly weird. [More...]

The basic hook – a man with a terminal medical condition decides to volunteer himself as a human sacrifice, and on his trip to the volcano meets a woman who fills him with a sense of value that he's never had – is a seemingly fatal combination of the arbitrarily bleak with the distressingly trite, but what saves the film from itself is the total commitment that everyone on both sides of the camera makes to the nonsensical internal logic of the movie.

It is, basically, a live-action cartoon that has cleverly disguised itself as one of those '80s style adventure-romcoms. It could only have been the work of a very confident or a very brash filmmaker, and so it's not much of a surprise to learn that it was the director's debut. It's much more of a surprise that the director in question was John Patrick Shanley, then hot off his writing Oscar for Moonstruck, and not yet entrenched as an Important Voice in American theater. The film has very little in common with anything else in Shanley's career; it's absolutely nothing like his solitary other project as a film director, 2008's Doubt, in which he adapted his own play as a series of overburdened dramatic images and mismatched performances.

It's the exact opposite kind of filmmaking that shows up in the manic Joe Versus the Volcano. The film is mannered, but it's also unendingly energetic, playing with loopy ideas and bizarre staging, so fizzy and strange that it frequently doesn't register how acerbic the bones of the story are. And the cast is terrific; or the leads are, at least (much of the supporting cast is perfectly fine, but the film simply doesn't rely on them all that much). Hanks relies on his customary amiability to temper the sour bitterness of the character, but doesn't play against the part; 1990 saw him trying on unfriendly performances for this first time, and while Bonfire of the Vanities went all wrong, his work as Joe is as impressive as anything else he did up to that point of his career.

Meg Ryan is the real stand-out though, not least because she plays three characters...

The script isn't afraid to wear its schema on its sleeve: all three women are meant to be read as variations on each other. But they're also three totally distinct personalities. Ryan's job was thus to square a circle and combine both of those conflicting impulses, and save the film by playing the roles with more depth and inner life than Shanley's script, which limits her to a prop in Joe's character development. And, of course, do this while servicing the off-kilter caricature tone of the whole movie. It's an impossible part(s), and Ryan nails it; there aren't really any conversations about what the best work of her career is, since she doesn't have much in the way of a fanbase anymore, but this would unquestionably belong in that conversation.

Like anything with this much ambition, Joe Versus the Volanco stumbles plenty of times, and there's a lot of messiness to go along with the comic inspiration. So of course it's not surprising that the film even now remains forgotten and unloved. But it's a different, special little blast of oddness, and on this its 25th birthday, it pleases me to encourage any and all of you to take a peek at this oddest little relic of the late 1980s.


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Reader Comments (15)

I have never actually seen this, but when it came out it sank like a stone, and was the butt of so many punchlines on late night TV. Just saying the title of the film provoked laughter. But you make it sound so interesting... I have a really soft spot for early Meg Ryan, so I should check this out.
Btw. What do you think of Albert Brooks "Defending Your Life"? Another ambitious failure? It was released at almost the same time, and I always liked it.

March 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Defending Your Life was my first Meryl Streep film! And I do love it, for that and other reasons. It could just be that I have a soft spot for idiosyncratic fantasies that waste large piles of studio money on offbeat personal visions.

March 10, 2015 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

We are kindred spirits then. How could you not love a version of heaven that included being able to eat as much pasta as you wanted without gaining weight? Meryl's character is always ordering second helpings of Fettuccine Alfredo. Comedies that make me smile, and gently chuckle occasionally, are just as good as laugh out loud ones. (IMO)

March 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

I really liked this movie when it came out and didn't understand the hatred. And as you say, Meg Ryan is really very good in it. all these years later I still remember that she had a pretty great monologue about 'everyone being asleep'.

She's undervalued as an actor. Makes me sad how the public turned on her (i've rarely seen such an immediate and final turn against an actor)

March 10, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I don't know what ever happened to Meg Ryan...
She's a great actress especially in comedies, but now she simply can't catch a break.
Joe vs. The Volcano is absolutely amazingly weird.

Defending you Life is so charming. Everything about it. Meryl is so cute in that (because Brooks also forced her to be-but whatever). The scene with the spaghettis is so awww.....
It's also Meryl's second HIGHEST rated movies on RT. Seriously.

March 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

One of my all-time favorite movies! I've been in this cult for a very long time as well.

The movie has this wonderful "unstuck in time" feel. It's like a screwball romantic comedy from the '40s mashed with the selfish consumerism of the '80s.

The worst part of being in such a small cult is that the movie has so many quotable lines, but nobody ever has any idea what I'm talking about.

Thanks for reminding me that I need to watch this one again soon. "May you live to be a thousand years old, sir."

March 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGregarius

I remembered loving this movie too but I need to rewatch to see if this holds up.
I hate bringing up sexism issue; but isn't Meg Ryan public persona the victim of this? After her affair with Crowe, the public basically turned their back on her while Crowe had the pass. It's sad really. And this is not about the whole surgery thing which I think is not really the reason why the public turned on her because that happened much later after the scandal.

I hope her sitcom got picked up.

March 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDrew

I think you nailed the reason why this film failed for most upon release. It came on the heels of the delightful and super popular rom-com When Harry Met Sally, starring the adorable, quirky Ryan (who we just got to know in a smaller role earlier in Top Gun). Tom Hanks, adorkable, every-man, beloved star of Bosom Buddies, Splash, and Big, as an unlikable, against-type, character just didn't jive with the audience. I remember seeing this in the theater and being SO DISAPPOINTED--what is this weirdness??? On later viewings (like last year!) I quite liked it.

As far as Defending Your Life? Albert Brooks is an acquired taste, even back then. Not sure he had the fan base to either love or hate that film. For me, it was like a Woody Allen-lite movie.

March 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Loved this movie when it came out! It reminded me of one of those old Bob Hope Bing Crosby Road pictures, but with some spiritual resonance.

I've always been a big Meg Ryan fan and am sad about how her career has ended up. Is it too much to hope for some redemption? I think a major part of the problem is she got stuck playing variations on her When Harry Met Sally character. She really shows her versatility here. The red-haired sister Angelica is a caricature (vapid LA rich girl), but she imbues her with surprising depth.

You mentioned the supporting cast. Lloyd Bridges, Abe Vigoda, and Amanda Plummer (!) are all excellent in this film. Plummer in particular is given very little to do. I always thought there could be another separate movie about her character, Dagmar.

March 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

The only thing I remember about this film is that one of Meg Ryan's characters describes herself as a "flibbertigibbet". What does that say about me?

March 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSoSue

I've never seen this. Will hope to catch it this month!

March 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge P.

I missed it when it came out, but right after I got fired from my lousy job at a big bank, it came out on video and I rented it at the local Blockbuster (remember renting VHS videos?). I LOVED IT!! In fact, so much so that I bought a copy from Blockbuster when the extra's hit the discount bin. Working at that effing bank was just like Tom Hanks working at that crappy Medical Supply company. Ya know, in the 1980's I lived in Chicago and I actually worked at a couple of old dumpy brick buildings that looked like that place on the inside. Loved how the opening credits of him going to work at this slave wage job used "16 Tons" as the background music. Working as an administrative assistant and executive secretary felt like slavery to me, so I could really relate. Especially, with having a totally selfish and stupid jerk for a boss. How could anyone not love it when he finally quit and told his boss off.

I didn't think this movie was weird at all. And, what no one has commented on yet is what an incredibly spiritual movie this is. Joe undergoes an existential awakening. And, he conquers his fears which are what trapped him at the Medical Supply company to begin with. And, he conquers the big one... the fear of death. And, by not being afraid to die he jumps into the volcano at the end and is saved from death. Despite the cartoonishness, the message was what was important to me not having super special effects to make it seem more realistic.Tom Hanks did that later in Cast Away.

He made himself ready for a journey and was totally prepared with everything he needed in his 4 trunks that he was able to retrieve and tie together into a life raft after his boat sank in a storm on the way to the Island of Waponi Woo. And, look under the makeup of the High Priest of the Waponi's and you'll see a very young Nathan Lane!!!

Loved the symbolism that would sneakily resurface throughout the movie like the rectal probe as symbolic of the fact that the path of life is not straight... not linear. It zigs and zags like the shape of the probe.

Lloyd Bridges was a gem!!! Love that scene where he hires Joe to jump into the Volcano. And, that salesman at the suitcase store always cracks me up when he opens that Chapel like door to worship at the altar of the Premier Steamer Trunk as the heavenly choir "ahhhhs" away in the background music.

Just love, love, love this movie. People need to see this movie now more than ever as fear is the most pervasive disease affecting the direction our society has taken since this movie came out. Conquer your fears people and it will set you free.

September 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSandra Russel

I have loved this movie since it came out and have watched it six or seven times so far. I agree it has many wonderful quotable lines. In recent years, when I ask someone if they have seen Joe vs the Volcano, many more say yes and most of them like it a lot! It's interesting that I just recently started an abstract painting that keeps reminding me of this movie and the fact that Joe was looking for a miracle and got several. Joe vs the Volcano remains one of my all-time favorite movies.

One of my sons would require the watching of this movie by all potential new friends. If they liked it, they passed the test and were in!

April 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCDenton

Actually this came out in 1990, March 9th 1990 to be exact, not 'the late 1980s' but whatever! I think the reason a lot of people didn't like this film was probably because it was before it's time and that they just didn't get it. I remember seeing this in the theater when it was released and it was only myself and my little sister in attendance for our showing. I remember not liking the beginning at all, finding it boring and hard to pay attention to, but I stuck with it until the end and then something happened. They found the Island, or they were found by the Orange Soda Drinking Islanders (Waponi Woo-ians?) to be more precise, and I started enjoying it. I was 12 at the time and walked out of that theater liking a movie that I only was able to enjoy 1/3 of. A few years later I caught it on tv, recorded it and watched it over and over. I loved it for some reason. I'm not sure why, was it the wonderful screenplay and direction by John Patrick Shanley or the beautiful music by the late & great french film composer, Georges Delerue? Was it Meg Ryan's very well performed 3 characters or the depressed and relatable average Joe performance by Tom Hanks? All were factors of greatness that made this outstanding film of course, but as I watched it more and more I started noticing hidden symbolism and reoccurring themes (which is always something I love about a well written and made film) that you wouldn't notice by only seeing the film once and I was in love forever! I try to get people to watch this all the time, because most dismiss it as a silly or lame rom-com movie, but I feel that's a huge disservice and complete misunderstanding to this gem of a film. I would say its actually more of a drama with a wonderful dose of comedy & fantasy to make it complete. Please, I encourage you If you have not yet seen this film, do yourself a favor and experience something truly one of a kind, in the best way. Now, take me to...the VOLCANO!!!! By the way, FYI, this is coming out on Blu-ray (finally) from Warner Bros., as part of their Archive Collection Blu-ray releases this month, June the 20th! Me, I've already pre-ordered it and can't wait to see the moon rising scene in glorious HD 1080p picture and hear Delerue's haunting and poetic score in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. :D

June 4, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrent Simon

Just watched it again - on original VHS tape! JOE is a Visual Experience. Each scene is separate and intriguing. Acting in everything is terrific. Meg Ryan is superb as 3 characters. Tom Hanks is in top form, as usual. The film IS an Adventure. We're not sure what comes next, or what it means. Sort of like life real ife. JOE VERSUS VOLCANO is a delightful goofy entertainment I will watch a few more times...

July 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSam Fargo

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