As my colleague Scott Tobias wrote in “Ten Notorious Flops Worth Seeing” John Patrick Shanley’s romantic fantasy Joe Versus The Volcano is about “nothing less than the joy of being alive.” It’s an incandescent trifle that nevertheless speaks to some of mankind’s most profound concerns. What does it mean to be alive? Is it a gift wasted on the living? Does impending death inherently give life more meaning?
That’s a lot for a first-time director to tackle, but Shanley was far from a neophyte. He’d established himself as a playwright, won an Academy Award for his very first screenplay (the swooningly romantic Moonstruck), and, for his directorial debut, roped in Steven Spielberg as Executive Producer and Tom Hanks, arguably our most beloved living movie star and the only apparent heir to James Stewart’s vacated title as America’s idealized everyman, as his star. Joe didn’t skimp on production values, either. It boasts the boundless invention and towering, gorgeous sets of a clever young prodigy who’d just been given the world’s largest toy box and was eager to make the most of it. It’s one of those rare movies where every element seems fussed over to perfection, where every molecule is perfectly in place. So if Joe Versus The Volcano was deemed a flop upon its initial release, that’s partially because expectations for it were so high.
Shanley immediately establishes a tricky fairy-tale tone with a scrawl that opens with “Once Upon a Time” before introducing us to our hapless hero, a miserable sad-sack (Hanks) who trudges drearily to work each day at a gothic factory straight out of Charles Addams or Edward Gorey’s morbid imagination. Hanks works for Dan Hedaya at a company that manufactures medical implements (“Home of the Rectal Probe!,” one woefully ineffective bit of bluster raves), but seems more intent on generating human misery for employees soul-sick from buzzing fluorescent lights and deadening routines.
At the office, Hanks lives a life that, to paraphrase Elvis Costello, is almost like suicide, so it’s pretty much a relief when he learns from doctor Robert Stack that he’s contracted a curious condition called a “Brain Cloud” and has less than a year to live. Hanks has been dying a long, slow, painful death since quitting the fire department years earlier and his impending exit from the land of the living liberates him from the grim concerns of day-to-day life, especially after manic pixie gazillionaire Lloyd Bridges offers to give Hanks a life of luxury on the condition that he eventually sail to a tropical island and jump into a volcano, thereby appeasing the native islanders so Bridges can score their precious, precious natural resources.
At each step in his journey, Hanks becomes involved with a different potential love interest played by Meg Ryan. Now normally the phrase “Meg Ryan in multiple roles” is enough to send shivers down the spine or suggest a fate worse than death. And while it pains me deeply to write this, Meg Ryan is adorable! In Joe Veruss The Volcano, at least. The film fully explores the actress’ remarkable range as she portrays everything from a mousy neurotic with a voice straight out of a ‘30s Warner Brothers melodrama to a flighty, neurotic, screwball L.A heiress to an unusually radiant variation on Ryan’s usual neurotic pixie persona.
Hanks encounters other memorable characters en route as well, especially Ossie Davis as a limo driver who views impeccable dressing as a matter of profound philosophical significance. Davis’ casually authoritative guide to the good life views luxury almost as a manner of life and death: this is poetically apt (Spoiler Alert!) in that when Hanks and Ryan are adrift in the ocean at the end of the film, it is literally Hanks’ choice to splurge on the decadently expensive luggage that saves their lives. Davis’ elegant mentor belongs to the strange cinema sub-strata of Magical Black Men, but the role is conceived and executed with such relaxed charm that he transcends stereotype.
As Hanks sheds his grim fatalism and embraces life, the film’s color palette morphs from cold grey drudgery to ripe, richly satiated jewel-box boldness. The East Coast sequences are a child’s giddy dream of New York while the island segments ooze infectious tropical sensuality. At the island, Hanks is met by Orange soda-loving Jewish Islanders led by the hilariously casual Abe Vigoda, who views Hanks less as a God-like hero than a mensch doing everyone a favor.
As Toys and Elizabethtown illustrate, whimsy is incredibly difficult to pull off. One man’s whimsical delight is another man’s cloying sugar headache. So when you’re trying to entice audiences to enter your magical little world of whimsy and delight, it helps immeasurably if your guide is Tom Hanks rather than, say, Robin Williams or Orlando Bloom.
Joe Versus The Volcano is an odd duck partially because it owes so much to Shanley’s theater background, from its extravagant, impressionist sets to its long takes to its stylized, beautifully wrought dialogue to its highly theatrical use of repetition, symbolism, and metaphor. Take Hedaya’s role for example. Hedaya essentially repeats endless minor variations on the same bit of dialogue for minutes on end. The effect is two-fold: the repetition develops a strangely hypnotic rhythm all its own and it indelibly conveys that Hedaya has probably been having this same maddeningly circular, essentially meaningless conversation for years, if not decades on end. He’s permanently locked in the poisonous, soul-crushing machine from which Hanks so joyfully extricates himself.
It didn’t make much of a splash at the time, but I can see the film’s storybook loveliness and bittersweet, child-like whimsy being a huge influence on Wes Anderson, especially The Life Aquatic, while the workplace absurdism and Bridges’ sprightly oddball turn anticipate Being John Malkovich and Orson Bean’s similarly twinkly performance as a genially warped old buzzard. But the loopy, child-like romanticism and winsome optimism at the heart of Joe belongs wholly and irrevocably to Shanley, who establishes himself as a true auteur here even as he draws extensively on the films of David Lynch, Tim Burton, and Spielberg. If nothing else, Joe Versus The Volcano should have announced the emergence of an audacious and a singular new directorial talent. Instead it was something of a cinematic dead end for a writer who went back to theater after gun-for hire work on We’re Back, Alive, and Congo, though he’s ostensibly directing a film adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt with Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep due out next year.
Most movies use the songs on their soundtrack like a bored teenager flipping through his iPod: a little hip-hop flava here, some punk rock aggression there, a little techno moodiness to top it off, and nothing meanders too long or makes much of an impression. But in Joe Versus The Volcano, the smartly selected songs play long enough to brood and sulk and develop a life of their own. Shanley lets Ray Charles’ transcendent take on “Ol’ Man River” linger long enough for its broken-down grace to shine through and implicate Hanks’ miserable existence in the process. Hanks’ evolution from suicidal despair to rapturous joy is reflected by a soundtrack that segues from the withering fatalism of “16 Tons” and “Ol Man River” to the infectious ebullience of “Good Loving.”
My father says Joe Versus The Volcano is held in high regard in the self-help community, which understandably embraces its narrative of a joyless sad-sack who discovers the tools to live out of his wildest fantasies. It’s a fizzy pop fable about the quirkiest possible route to self-actualization that’d probably have been better received by the public at large if it didn’t boast such a precious title or cutesy conceits like Orange-soda-loving, Volcano-fearing Jewish islanders. Which begs the question: Do movies like Ishtar, Gigli, Howard The Duck and Joe Versus The Volcano fail because they have terrible titles or are their titles only viewed as terrible because the films were such pronounced box-office failures? For this film, at least, I’d to think the second explanation holds true.
For such a strangely irresistible, life-affirming movie Joe proved awfully divisive. Shanley gave critics and haters plenty of ammunition (Meg Ryan in three mannered roles, all manner of twee cutesiness spilling around the edges), just as he gave the film’s growing cult plenty to fall in love with. Over and over again.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success