Joe Versus the Volcano

Reviewed By Andrew Howe
Posted 07/03/02 08:49:54

"Hug a dog today."
3 stars (Average)

In 1990 Joe Versus the Volcano was released to widespread public indifference, but the battle for box-office supremacy was over before it even began. The same distributors who had no idea how to market The Princess Bride drew up advertisements trumpeting the participation of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and when audiences expecting another Dragnet or When Harry Met Sally were confronted with writer/director John Patrick Shanley’s whimsical fairytale the grapevine killed it stone dead.

The Princess Bride found the audience it deserved in the home video market, but Shanley’s creation has been consigned to the status of a dimly remembered oddity from the back catalogue of a couple of major stars. Which is unfortunate, because Joe Versus the Volcano is a unique vision that, were it not for a couple of ill-advised scripting decisions, could have taken its place as one of the first classic films of the new decade.

Joe Banks (Hanks) is an ailing everyman who ekes out a living at a Dickensian medical supply factory, but his career as everyone’s favourite doormat comes to an abrupt halt when he discovers that he’s contracted a terminal disease. A semiconductor magnate hires him to placate the native population of a mineral-rich island by jumping into an active volcano, sweetening the deal with promises of a cruise on a private yacht and as many no-limit credit cards as he can fit in his wallet. Banks’s odyssey brings him into contact with three characters played by Ryan (with the traditional blonde version playing the requisite love interest), and the remaining running time chronicles his various mishaps on the road to a (literally) explosive climax.

The film marked the beginning of Hanks’s transition from comic actor to dramatic performer, mixing his early-period likeable-Joe shtick with the sensitivity that became his trademark. He looks genuinely ill in the opening scenes (a condition he proved adept at imitating in Philadelphia and Cast Away), capturing Banks’s crushing loneliness with his note-perfect expressions, mannerisms and vocal delivery. However, as the film wears on he gradually turns up the heat, transforming the downtrodden Banks from a source of pity into an endearing portrait of a man who expresses his wonder at the world with every breath he takes.

Ryan went on to become one of the most universally disliked actresses of the last decade, but she puts the brakes on her more annoying characteristics to turn in a tolerable trio of performances. Casting her in three roles was a decision that doesn’t pay any real dividends (this isn’t Meryl Streep we’re talking about here), though watching her struggle with the ridiculous accent she adopts for the second character provides a welcome distraction from one of the few slow sequences. Most of the supporting players are reduced to cameo status, but special mention goes to Dan Hedaya as the boss from hell and Ossie Davis as a confrontational but sympathetic chauffer.

When a film begins with the words “Once upon a time” it’s a sure bet you’re in for a modern-day fairytale, but there’s a considerable gulf between the bedtime stories peddled by J.K. Rowling and the dark visions of Hans Christian Anderson. Shanley hedges his bets by tipping his hat to both styles, and comes thundering out of the gates with an opening sequence that corners the market on oppression. The production designers conjure a vision of hell that wouldn’t be out of place in Gilliam’s Brazil - the legions of the damned lurching through the factory gates, basement offices bathed in sickly fluorescent lighting, the strangely disturbing sight of petroleum jelly squirting from an oversized nozzle – and it’s so artfully constructed that when Banks finally leaves the monstrosity in his wake you’re almost as relieved as he is.

When we’re not busy admiring the production design, Shanley’s doing his level best to make us leave any preconceived notions about the narrative at the door. His off-kilter approach to the subject matter is epitomised by a scene where Banks has just discovered he’s got six months to live, and we join him as he emerges from the doctor’s office to the mournful strains of Ol’ Man River. The camera slowly zooms out until he’s so far away that you can’t make out the expression on his face, and while he stands and thinks about the vagaries of fate a boy wanders into the far right of the frame. He’s walking a dog the size of a small pony, and Banks reaches out to the animal, tentatively at first, then he hugs the hound like a drowning man clutching a life jacket, and when he finishes his canine communion he embraces the unsuspecting kid as well. Then he straightens up, summons whatever strength he’s got left, and heads back to the life-sucking hellhole he calls work, where he takes the time to resurrect a trampled flower that stands alone amidst the concrete carnage of the factory entrance.

It’s a magical interlude, capturing the love of the Lord’s creations that might well overcome a man who knows he’s on the verge of leaving it all behind. It’s not the kind of thing you expect to see in an ostensible comedy, and Shanley goes on with the job by creating a roster of flawed but undeniably human characters. One abandons Banks in his hour of need because she can’t handle the responsibility, another makes small talk about suicide, the love interest describes herself as “soul-sick” – the dark undertones lend the film the required weight, and Shanley washes it down with the occasional dose of quietly affecting dialogue (Ryan ruminating on the discovery that her principles were up for sale, Bank’s conversation with the doctor who delivers the bad tidings, and many others).

Shanley balances the scales with a sizeable comic element, and for the first hour the humour ranges from jokes that only just miss the mark to gloriously left-field concepts (I guarantee you’ll never look at your luggage in the same way again). Even the sight of a ludicrously fake hammerhead shark succeeds on the strength of Hanks’s exaggerated reaction, and a well-realised castaway sequence culminates in a stunning vision of lunar majesty. Unfortunately, once our heroes reach their destination Shanley ditches the fable for farce, scripting an idiotic final act that should have been left on the cutting room floor. It’s at odds with the measured pace of the events that precede it, packed to the brim with obvious and uninspired humour (the orange soda pop deserves an honourable mention in the history of bad ideas), and while Shanley redeems himself with the final scene it’s not enough to remove the bitter taste of his cataclysmic error in judgement.

Joe Versus the Volcano is unable to turn its numerous flashes of inspiration into a truly satisfying whole, but we’re still left with an appealing film that defies simple categorisation. Uneven brilliance is better than none at all, so see it for the moments when Shanley soars, because there’s a trace of magic in his creation that might just outlast the closing credits.

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