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Joe versus the Volcano

by Glenn Erickson Jun 06, 2017

“May you live to be a thousand years old, sir.” Still the most widely unheralded great movie on the books, John Patrick Shanley’s lightweight/profound fable is an unmitigated delight. See Tom Hanks at the end of the first phase of his career plus Meg Ryan in an unacknowledged career highlight. How can a movie be so purposely insubstantial, and yet be ‘heavier’ than a dozen pictures with ‘big things to say?’

Joe Versus the Volcano
Warner Archive Collection
1990 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 97 min. / Street Date June 20, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Abe Vigoda,
Dan Hedaya, Barry McGovern, Amanda Plummer, Ossie Davis
Cinematography Stephen Goldblatt
Production Designer Bo Welch
Film Editors Richard Halsey, Kenneth Wannberg
Original Music Georges Delerue
Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg and Teri Schwartz
Written and Directed by
John Patrick Shanley


I think I found Joe Versus the Volcano in a laserdisc bargain bin a couple of years after it came out. I ignored it when it was new because I thought it would be just another Tom Hanks comedy, and a TV spot promoting its theatrical release looked dumb. Writer-director John Patrick Shanley apparently became white-hot after the major hit of Norman Jewison’s 1987 Moonstruck; that flash of bankability would soon fade. Joe Versus the Volcano now has a loyal but not overwhelmingly huge following. To me it’s the kind of movie worth ringing bells and waving flags over, to get people to give it chance.

This wonderful comedy needs to be re-evaluated by as many people that can muster the imagination to give it another try. It’s the romantic equal of I Know Where I’m Going!, and it goes neck and neck with Groundhog Day in the Useful Philosophy department.  A major movie-public disconnect happened back in 1990. Critics stomped Joe versus the Volcano and audiences rejected it.   Savant remembers reading a ‘hip’ treatise on the movie industry for that year, in which the author used Joe  as an example of idiotic and worthless moviemaking.

This reviewer has no response to that.


If this piece tends to be a bit enthusiastic, let’s just say this is one of Savant’s favorite films. I’ve yet to show it to anyone who didn’t warm up to it mightily, and as I have friends and family who delight in rolling their eyes at my taste in pictures, that’s a strong endorsement.

The story opens at the gates of the American Panascope Company, a huge, ugly factory. The arrival of the morning work force echoes the shift-change opening sequence of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Having lost his nerve as a fireman, Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) now works a demoralizing drudge job under the petty tyranny of boss Frank Waturi (Dan Hedaya). He’s become a chronically congested and miserable hypochondriac. A visit to mysterious Dr. Ellison (Robert Stack) confirms Joe’s worst fear — he’s dying from a terminal disease. But the awareness of imminent death brings Joe back to life, so to speak. He quits his job and impulsively dates DeDe (Meg Ryan), a fear-constipated co-worker. In the morning, eccentric millionaire industrialist Samuel Harvey Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges) shows up at Joe’s door with a wild offer. To make superconductors, Graynamore needs Buburum, a scarce resource controlled by the Waponis, a weird tribe on an island in the South Pacific. They won’t cooperate unless Graynamore provides them with a sacrifice to appease their volcano god. That’s where Joe comes in. Graynamore gives him a sheaf of credit cards to fund a spending spree on his way to certain doom. He’s going to die anyway, so why not a short, lavish, glorious demise instead of a slow painful one?


John Patrick Shanley is a Pulitzer-winning playwright whose scripts for Five Corners and Moonstruck earned him high praise and the opportunity to direct. This film and the disappointing The January Man were perceived as dismal flops, but Joe versus the Volcano has accumulated an impressive cult following (sorry, no other word applies). Its twenty-year-old original fan website is still up. It features a number of compelling essays.

Joe versus the Volcano is indeed worthy of analysis. Composed of only a few scenes, it’s heavily stylized in both script and dialogue. It doesn’t follow any readily recognizable genre format. The picture dotes on a mannered artificiality that apparently communicated nothing to the ‘hip’ audiences of 1990. The expressionist opening features the giant doors of the American Panascope Company — “Home of the Rectal Probe” — admitting a legion of workaday zombies. Once inside, Joe’s coworkers are reduced to soulless Pods in a greenish half-world of bad fluorescent lighting.

With the logic of a fairy tale, Joe shifts to other styles, staying off-balance all the while. Most scenes are accompanied by brilliantly chosen pop music — Ray Charles, Brasil ’66, My Fair Lady, united only by a refreshing refusal to follow a contemporary trend. Nothing we see is ‘credible’ yet it all makes story sense: the recurring motif of the jagged lightning bolt image; the palm tree island-with-a-volcano first seen on a novelty lamp; and an exaggerated giant Blue Moon (shared with Moonstruck) representing the power of Nature, which to Shanley equals God.


From its cheapo font main titles forward, Joe versus the Volcano is visually deceiving. Shanley sets up brilliantly composed scene shots that express just the right mood, and moves on. Coverage is for wimps. One marvelous scene outside Dr. Ellison’s office is nothing more than a slow zoom back to reveal the tableau of Joe hugging a passerby’s giant-sized dog. As seen from the Staten Island Ferry, New York is a fantasy wall of colored lights, and the glowing sunsets from the deck of the sailboat are equally artificial. When Joe dances while adrift on the ocean, the screen is just an expanse of sky with this goofy, ukulele-playing guy doing The Swim for his own amusement. There’s a wonderful on-the-town sequence in New York that ranks among the best. In one magical moment a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty, totally blue, steps into a shot.  By contrast L.A.  is reduced to an airport, Palos Verdes (“It looks fake!”), a chi-chi restaurant, Mulholland Drive, the beach at Santa Monica, and Marina Del Rey.

There’s sharply observed criticism in all of this, softened by the fairy-tale approach. Perhaps 1990 audiences thought it all irrelevant for a Tom Hanks movie. At that time they were accustomed to seeing a Hanks character solving problems by kissing a mermaid or running down a hallway in his underwear. We instead get little glimpses of distorted reality. Who forgets the diminished-perspective Coffee-Corner-Of-Doom, with the powdered creamer that clots instead of dissolving? This ought to have communicated something to dehumanized working folks. Maybe they just felt insulted.


The characters Joe encounters are also wonderful. They’re all given excellent, unrealistic dialogue. Dan Hedeya’s Mr. Waturi, the ultimate petty manager with an office domain to terrorize, looks exactly like the farmer in the first animated feature of Animal Farm.  Mr. Graynamore is all bluff and show. He pitches his insane offer with the perfect assurance of inspired ‘positive thinking’ hucksters. All these characters seem aware that they’re merely playing roles in a fairy tale. Abe Vigoda’s native chief knows all too well that he’s an expendable plot mechanism. A deadpan, “I’ll be going now,” is his perfunctory exit line.


But Joe doesn’t interact solely with users, losers and zombies. There’s also the dignified good will of Marshall (Ossie Davis), a chauffeur who doubles as a mentor-motivator, helping to prepare Joe for his odyssey, so to speak. My favorite bit of all is Barry McGovern’s marvelously intense luggage salesman, who outfits Joe like Argos prepping Jason to go forth and conquer. “That’s extremely interesting … as a luggage problem he intones, as if sagely figuring out a crucial chess move. If only James Bond’s “Q” were this motivated and serious about his work.

Even the bits are superb. Carol Kane flashes a one-shot smile as a hairdresser and Amanda Plummer (Courtship) purrs nicely as the first mate on the sailboat. I wonder if it’s possible that Plummer’s role was originally larger? Hiding in plain sight is Nathan Lane, doing his own little comedy riff disguised as the Waponis’ excitable ‘advance man.’


The romantic center is Meg Ryan, in three roles. Each woman Joe meets on his journey is a dead ringer for the last, but all have serious problems. Poor DeDe is simply terrorized by life — she responds to Joe’s advances but folds up like a withered flower when confronted with the idea of a terminal sickness. She’s too cowed to handle much of anything outside herself, and Joe lets her go. The challenging Graynamore Sisters display polar opposite reactions to an oppressive, wealthy parent. In a society where making it on your own is a tough row to hoe, there’s a tendency for kids of wealth to never break free from their parents.


Angelica Graynamore, the Los Angeles Mercedes-Benz welfare case, is the bought dog of her father and has lost all self-respect. She’s caricatured as a trend-following hollow woman, cracking crab legs and reciting pitiful poetry to snag a pitiful one-night. DeDe and Angelica fascinate Joe but neither one is the girl for him.


But Angelica’s half-sister Patricia fits the bill. She’s also troubled by her uneasy relationship with her father. Patricia hasn’t sold out like Angelica and is acutely aware that every handout comes with strings attached. She’s a player and a fighter, and she’s just what Joe needs.

So this brings us to the island of Waponi Wu, where some viewers say they totally tune out of the movie. I guess it was a stylistic jump into outright silliness that they didn’t want to make. To Savant, it’s perfect. Joe versus the Volcano is about taking responsibility for one’s own life, which means having courage — courage not to be cool, courage not to be affluent; the courage to accept oneself and face life instead of forever retreating from possible pitfalls. Joe fancies himself a helpless victim until liberated by a fatal diagnosis. He makes the moves and takes the chances only when he no longer has his compass affixed to the safe path. Joe defies the feared ‘crooked roads’ that loom over American Panascope, Waponi Wu and his own living room, and finds his own adventure.

A similar conflict is humorously described in Albert Brooks’ 1991 Defending Your Life, which is more blunt about ‘facing your fear!’ in a cosmic system of self-improvement through reincarnation. Joe versus the Volcano is closer to Brooks’ picture than it is to 1993’s Groundhog Day, which to Savant seems an improved, less philosophically leaky It’s a Wonderful Life.

The danger is in selling out, losing one’s dignity, losing one’s soul. DeDe and Mr. Wa-Waturi are lost and don’t even know it. Angelica is like an addict: she knows she’s wasting her life yet is too weak to do anything other than abuse potential mates like Joe, whom she patronizes because she no longer has a grip on her own personality. The chip on Patricia’s shoulder is different. She gives Joe a hard time, unconsciously testing to see if he’s another passive Pod, or if he will fight back. Ya gotta be a fighter on the personality plane — one can’t just passively accept things.

Author Shanley takes a risk by not endorsing conventional faith. Patricia says she believes in herself, but not in an egotistical way. Joe prays to God when he thinks he’s at the point of death — a powerful, non-comedic scene — but he gives thanks to a god ‘whose name he does not know.’ Sometimes all one really has control over is what one does personally, and most people don’t even have that.


The Waponis may look like over-costumed Gilligan’s Island rejects, drinking huge amounts of Jump Orange Soda, but Savant thinks they’re perfect too. A melding of ‘Polynesian, Celtic, Hebrew and Latin’ influences, they’re a society that’s sold out entirely to tradition and a nonsensical religion. The giant volcano Wu is their enemy because they’ve made it their enemy, their Absolute Fear. Instead of being a neutral given of nature (it either kills you or it doesn’t), the Wu has become a cultural Moloch that determines the Waponis’ every move. Sam Graynamore uses this fear to exploit the Waponis. Because they are so demoralized that nobody will sacrifice themselves to save the rest, the Waponis must bargain for an outsider to sacrifice himself for them. As a gambit, it’s vaguely similar to The Wicker Man. The difference is that the Waponis are so lost, they’re worshipping Gods they no longer believe in: “Joe, even the Chief doesn’t want you to jump.”

Refusing to accept Mr. Waturi’s credo that Life is supposed to be rotten, Joe looks for the end of his crooked road and finds both happiness and his own true nature. It doesn’t often happen that way — he’s indeed lucky. But even as an entire society is wiped out before his eyes, and not grieved one bit (who mourns people without souls?), Joe hasn’t put it all together. He needs a romantic Other to share life with and to keep him straightened out, away from hypochondriac, Bickle-ish Morbid Self-Attention.


Joe versus the Volcano is of course a Shaggy Dog story. Its premise is a hook to keep us wondering how in the Heck it can satisfactorily resolve. Most Shaggy Dogs evade their own premises, or end with their issues ‘meaningfully’ unresolved, as in The Birds. The narrative of Joe versus the Volcano purposely paints itself into a corner. How can this possibly end, we think. Like a Rod Serling twist, what happens at the windup takes on too much weight.

Tom Hanks’ dialogue line about ‘no crying in baseball’ from A League of Their Own has joined the all-time greatest movie dialogue zingers. Joe has a tall stack of winners, by which fans of the film recognize one another:


“I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?”

“I’m not arguing that with you.”

     “Long ago, the delicate tangles of his hair…
      covered the emptiness of my hand.”

     “Oh, I have no response to that.”

     “You didn’t get a second opinion on something called a brain cloud?”

     “I am completely untrustworthy… I’m a flibbertigibbet”

     “Very exciting… as a luggage problem!”

     “This is one of those typical conversations where
      we’re all open and sharing our innermost thoughts and it’s
      all bullshit and a lie and it doesn’t cost you anything!”


In my family, at least, these collected words of wisdom have never gone away. In the case of the, ‘oh, I have no response to that’ line, I’ve always wondered if it’s meant to be wholly sincere, or if it’s a sly stagecraft effect, as if Angelica is interpreting a stage direction. That would make sense too, as Angelica so very much considers herself an actress trapped in her own life story.

Other interpretations abound, encouraged by writer-director Shanley’s active salting of symbolic visuals onto most every scene. In addition to the jagged lightning bolt and the South Seas Lamp and the Blue Moon, there’s also the Duck. He’s seen in only one shot on Waponi Wu, observed by Joe. As proposed in one of the essays on the old fan website, the Duck might well represent the Devil. The tempter Sam Graynamore’s cane handle bears the image of a duck as well. The implication is that Graynamore hasn’t lost his soul, he’s sold it.

We also note other less obvious references. Students of Joseph Conrad will recognize that the door to Dr. Ellison’s office is flanked by two large dogs (but no old women knitting). When Joe exits he hugs a large dog, held by an old woman. Like a mythical hero, Joe is confronted by a sea monster. He’s later saved by his precious luggage, which repeatedly appears like magic. Remember the introduction of George Bailey, National Geographic explorer, in It’s A Wonderful Life?  He’s buying a big piece of luggage for an ocean voyage. He says, “If the ship sinks, I can use this suitcase as a lifeboat!”

Did John Patrick Shanley cobble various details from old South Seas adventures? The ‘crooked’ road symbol that appears in several guises is a perfect copy of the lightning bolt in the old RKO Film end title logo, notably at the end of Bird of Paradise, the old South Seas fated romance about jumping into volcanoes (hmmm…). And if you have your movie reference microscope handy, note that the MacGuffin-like desired substance that Graynamore seeks, Buburum, sounds awfully close to ‘Boogulroo,’ which is the name of a native chief in the old Burt Lancaster South Seas adventure His Majesty O’Keefe. I know you’ll be stopping people on the street to share that little epiphany.

Some people explain Joe’s odd, storybook world (“Once upon a time…”) with the idea that everything we see is indeed a child’s fairy tale inspired by Joe’s juvenile lamp, the one with the ‘island paradise’ motif that embodies a yearning for an escape ‘away from the things of man.’  In this Invaders from Mars– like dream logic, the movie looks like a stylized picture book because it’s being dreamed by a reader of stylized picture books, a kid. That accounts for all the whimsical, irrational things like ‘brain clouds’ — it’s a dream. But Shanley’s dream is like the perfect piece of luggage, stocked with bits of wisdom on how to live one’s life fully.


In the final judgment, the real measure of a film is whether it connects with an audience or not, and the 1990 rejection is evidence that Joe versus the Volcano is a failure. But the film’s resolution does all the things it needs to do. People remark that the volcano climax is silly and unrealistic, when the picture never for a moment attempts anything realistic. Some fantasies we reject and some we embrace. Perhaps Tom Hanks in 1990 didn’t send the right signals to get viewers ready to see something with this kind of ‘heavy whimsy.’ Go figure.

I find the philosophy of Joe versus the Volcano really useful. ‘Don’t make your life decisions out of fear’ would seem to be the message that coalesces from John Patrick Shanley’s eccentric fable. Stop denying Death and go out and live as if you aren’t going to be around forever. Of course, the difficulty with following Joe’s path is that most people aren’t making decisions just for themselves. Other legitimate responsibilities play a part, and most everything we choose to do affects others as well.



The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Joe Versus the Volcano is a sterling encode of this marvelous movie, reproducing the wonderful expressionistic sets and pre-CGI matte art . . . Mr. Waturi’s office looks like an ancient, grimy men’s room, with yellow and green tile and those sickly fluorescent lights. John Patrick Shanley is a simplifier, not a complicator, in the Hitchcock sense of the issue. If one storybook-like shot achieves what he wants, great. If he wants Waponi Wu to look like a ridiculous TV sitcom, I’m all for it. Everything about the show is a glorious picture-book puzzle.

The WAC repeats the extras from the old DVD from fifteen years ago. The Eric Burdon “Sixteen Tons” music video isn’t much, and the short promo featurette is even worse, with the cast lamely asking questions about what the movie means. Shanley isn’t the defensive type that explains himself to the public, but I’d sure like to read more about the genesis of Joe.

Unfortunately, when a picture performs as poorly as did this show nobody thinks to gather the cast and crew for a grand reunion. I was once introduced to the matte painter Yusei Uesugi, who around 1989 was assisting my friend Rocco Gioffre. He’s apparently still working at ILM. The only other movie that John Patrick Shanley has directed is 2008’s Doubt, which I think is extraordinary.

According to what I’ve heard, Joe versus the Volcano’s original ending didn’t preview well, and was re-filmed. Savant prefers the final version on the movie but the flabby first ending, which unnecessarily ties up loose plot ends and adds several more, has some hilarious jokes. Patricia and Joe are rescued by the sister ship Tweedledee, and confront the guilty Samuel Harvey Graynamore and Dr. Ellison:

Patricia: “That’s the most dastardly thing I’ve ever heard. You’re both dastards.”

Now, seeing that alternate ending would have been a thrill.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Joe Versus the Volcano
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: featurette, music video
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 4, 2017

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Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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