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REVIEW: Joe Versus the Volcano

Joe Versus the VolcanoDirected by: John Patrick Shanley
Produced by: Teri Schwartz
Written by: John Patrick Shanley
Edited by: Richard Halsey, Kenneth Wannberg
Cinematography by: Stephen Goldblatt
Music by: Georges Delerue
Starring: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Ossie Davis, Abe Vigoda, Dan Hedaya, Barry McGovern, Amanda Plummer, Nathan Lane, Carol Kane
Year: 1990


I’d always been curious about Joe Versus the Volcano, mostly because it was the first pairing of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan – and you know from a past review that I actually quite like the pairing – but my mom basically shaped my understanding of the movie to the point of making me mostly be ambivalent about it by hammering it into my mind that the movie was stupid. That curiosity was obviously not enough to cause me to seek it out, as I had basically not seen it up until this past week, but, whenever I did remember it existed, there was a moment where I would think to myself, “Huh. I should see that someday,” before quickly forgetting about it. This time, though, I finally saw it, mostly because a friend/coworker/fellow cinephile recommended the movie as being his favorite bad movie. Me being who I am, I took it as a sign that, yes, I should finally see this movie, so it instantly went onto the top of my Netflix DVD queue.

So… yeah, I saw this movie. Finally. Was it worth it?…

Joe Versus the Volcano - Rectal Probe

I guess we should first talk about the plot of the movie. Joe is your… average joe… who works at a soul-sucking job that evidently prides itself on creating such marvels as the… rectal probe… which I guess is pretty amusing. We see Joe slogging his way to work amongst the other drones who work there, and we witness him quite literally forsake his existence when his ratty shoes fall apart in the mud. His boss is one of those guys who will constantly complain about the same stuff over and over again (quite literally), regardless of whether it’s really your fault, and who has little to no empathy because he believes that work should be miserable because it’s work, but you should be thankful you have a job, so there’s no excuse that should keep you from it, not even sickness. Joe, however, soon finds out he’s not just sick but dying with only months left to live. Joe, with nothing left to lose, quits in spectacular fashion and asks the cute girl in the office he’s always been too intimidated by out on a date.

Joe Versus the Volcano - Meg Ryan

The date goes bust, however, and Joe pretty much goes back to his miserly ways until the day when good fortune literally knocks on his door. It’s a kindly old industrialist who offers to give Joe all the money and luxuries he can enjoy within a 20 day span if he promises at the end of that time frame to jump into a volcano as a sacrifice to the god of an isolated tribe that lives on an island rich in a material that the old man’s company needs to manufacture their product, and providing them with Joe’s sacrifice will keep him on good terms with the natives. Joe accepts, because otherwise the movie would have been very short and certainly less wacky.

It’s not such a bad premise for a wacky screwball comedy, as Joe Versus the Volcano aspires to be. I’ve always kind of held to the notion that there pretty much isn’t such a thing as a bad premise, just bad execution, and I think that holds up for this movie. Nothing about this movie stands out about this movie as being inherently unsellable to a general audience provided that the movie sells it well enough. The problem with Joe Versus the Volcano is that it doesn’t do that, and yet, for me, it also kind of fails to rise above the trash heap in which it belongs, so it never actually stands out as being so-bad-it’s-good, either.

Joe Versus the Volcano - Dan Hedaya

There are a few competent things I can point out, such as the fact that the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously – one of the scenes has Joe fishing with some new friends he’s made, and the hammerhead shark he pulls out of the water is such a comically bad prop, you just know that they were aiming for silliness. The one area where they do strike gold with that is the utilization of Meg Ryan, who plays the three supporting ladies who enter into Joe’s life, starting with the girl from Joe’s office, moving on to the industrialist’s quirky daughter who escorts Joe at one point in Joe’s journey, and then in her half-sister, who is the most normal of the three – and therefore also the most boring of them all.

The middle one, Angelica, is definitely the most interesting, mostly because we actually get a sense of who she is, what her past is like, what her relationship is like with all the major supporting players, and we actually move beyond her seemingly vapid personality and see someone with a bit more going on in her head than is initially apparent. It also helps that Meg Ryan nails the humor about the character and the comical accent she speaks with – a sort of cartoon take on the old fashioned fast-talking women you see in old screwball comedies. Tom Hanks is usually a welcome presence, and he’s not bad here (though he is pretty much the most bland character in the movie), but Meg Ryan really does keep the movie afloat, even when she’s not playing Angelica since at least those other two characters are charming.

Joe Versus the Volcano - Tom Hanks, also Meg Ryan

Less successful is the film’s ability to keep a consistent tone. There’s wacky and then there’s random, and mostly this film just feels like random elements thrown together as if that hodgepodge of elements would, through proximity, make the film appear to have some kind of consistency. The movie starts off with very elaborate and very nice-looking sets and a comically bleak tone when Joe is working his job, but it shifts into a relatively normal everyday kind of thing as he beings to enjoy his last few days of life, which could have been a logical change of pace if it weren’t for the fact that it then goes into a screwball comedy routine with Angelica before shifting into action/adventure with a touch of romance when Joe begins his journey by sea to the fictional island of Waponi Woo, where, upon arrival, the movie then makes another shift into completely batshit insanity mode when they meet up with the orange soda-guzzling natives who are led by Abe Vigoda and Nathan Lane under a lot of heavy make-up and aluminum can costumes. And then the movie just kind of ends after the most random deus ex machina ever contrived solves all the characters’ problems.

Joe Versus the Volcano - Who loves orange soda

Joe Versus the Volcano apparently has a cult status, and I do understand why some, like my friend, might consider it enjoyably bad. I’m not going to contest their enjoyment of the film, as I can sort of understand the appreciation for how much the movie just doesn’t care about what random pieces were used in assembling it. For me, however, the movie just wasn’t bad enough to actually transcend that boundary into so-bad-it’s-good territory. I guess I just get a sense that this movie was actually kind of aware of what it was doing, and so it was less interesting because of it. The stupid movies I enjoy are the ones that just do not care or try so hard to care that they fall flat on their face, and Joe Versus the Volcano is just trying just hard enough to not be trying too hard but also not apathetic enough to be laughably bad. As I said before, I genuinely enjoyed Meg Ryan here and was mostly just perplexed as to why nothing else in this movie cared enough to be as delightfully silly as she was in the first two thirds of the film. The fact that they ultimately set Joe up with the least interesting love interest in the end just makes it even blander.

Joe Versus the Volcano - Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan

If you want to see the first in what would eventually become an unofficial trilogy of movies starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, by all means seek out this movie. You won’t try to gouge your eyes out or anything, so fear not the threat of self-inflicted physical harm that you might fear from some actual, truly awful movies with no redeeming qualities. You might come to genuinely like it, even, as I have come to understand even Roger Ebert did. You may be like my friend/coworker/fellow cinephile and take delight in it for all its ineptitude. As for me? I didn’t care for it. I’m not even certain how much care I put into this review, honestly – that’s how much I didn’t care for it. But I am certain that I’m going to have to side with my mom on this one. Joe Versus the Volcano isn’t actually awful. But it is pretty freaking stupid.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 2 / 5

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