Class of 1990: Joe Versus the Volcano

In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1990 and seven from 2000 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column). The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films that were among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.


It’s difficult for me to disassociate any objective analysis of Joe Versus the Volcano from the biochemical responses it elicits from me whenever I watch it. So I won’t bother to try. In that sense, this is as much a Movies That Made Us treatise as it is a Class of essay.

As a 10-year-old in the theatre, I keyed into the loose-limbed physical comedy that Tom Hanks has all but abandoned these days, the sense of globe-trotting adventure and the playfully colorful tribal adornments of the Waponi-Woo that turn up at the film’s end. Those things still delight me now, albeit to a lesser degree. Today, it’s the surreal Technicolor pop of both the metropolitan city lights and thin paper lanterns on the sea that instantaneously ignites the pleasure center in my brain. It’s the iconic production design from Bo Welch that has imprinted on my psyche, from the degrading depths of Joe’s daily job to the precipice of the volcano to which he later ascends. It’s the way I’m left in awe by the visual sophistication with which this story is told by writer-director John Patrick Shanley, a playwright who had won an Oscar for his Moonstruck screenplay two years earlier and who was able to work as skillfully with immensity as he was intimacy. It’s the unexpected eruptions of empathy and entropy, indeed the very dichotomy that makes us human, that makes me cry every time.

Joe Versus the Volcano is an all-time favorite but it’s not annual viewing. It never has been. It hardly seems fair to impose scheduling on a film that embraces a larger cosmic order we can never fully know or name — no matter what religion tells us — but whose presence is unmistakable when a sliver decides to reveal itself. It’s the sort of sui generis soul filler that the universe has a way of telling me I need when I need it.

Of course, the plan to post this entry preceded anything so strenuous as life in the time of a pandemic. I acknowledge the overwhelming privilege with which I can say, at least at present, that I am fine. My wife is fine. My family is fine. My job and my wife’s jobs are neither jeopardized nor do they entail tasks we cannot complete from the confines of our house.

And yet worry is ever-present. Both sets of parents occupy an age group to which this virus has shown little quarter. My wife has a pre-existing condition that, should the virus kick down our door, could easily ravage her respiratory system. One of my brothers lives in a city poised to become a hotspot. Friends and colleagues face similar challenges. In trying to more responsibly isolate ourselves, we made a decision that we feared twisted the knife in the back of a local business that has been a godsend to us — despite them telling us they understood why we had made that decision. What to do when you see someone’s eyes well up as they soldier through a response to you? You can only cry alongside them.

Again: We’re fine. But I worry how much I take that privilege for granted. Will I be robbed of that comfort tomorrow? There is no shortage of horrifying stories about leaving a loved one at a hospital and never hearing from them again. Of those far more hale and hearty than I am being hollowed out by this. And yet there is also no shortage of uplifting accounts of kindness — assisting strangers with the delivery of essentials, sewing masks to help protect those on the frontlines of medical care, donating what you can to the cause even if that is the gift of staying home as much as possible. The other question, the one that’s keeping me balanced right now: What can I do to help others maintain the comfort they have?

To watch Joe Versus the Volcano right now today is to understand even more fully the ways in which it shows how we can find strength from the besiegement and balm of what humankind hath wrought. There is solace in its sillier segments. There are tears in its toughest ones. Fearless and frank, it’s a parable about living life in a way that prepares you for death that feels almost absurdly welcome in the here and now.

The film begins with the sound of composer Georges Delerue’s orchestra tuning up. Like any symphonic work, Joe Versus the Volcano indulges digressions and detours en route to its central themes — disguising even those, too, in different dynamics and tempos. “Once upon a time, there was a guy named Joe, who had a very lousy job.” So starts this fairytale in as minor a key as mainstream films can muster, with an ominously slow, stormy rendition of the song “Sixteen Tons.” It accompanies Joe Banks’ (Hanks) arrival for another day on the job at American Panascope, which prides itself on six figures of satisfied rectal probe customers and a half-century of manufacturing petroleum jelly.

It’s a sequence of occupational oppression that you won’t soon forget. Eric Burdon’s version of the song robs it of the bounce brought to it by Tennessee Ernie Ford in his high-charting rendition; gone is even the momentary reverie of a working man’s revolution, leaving only the inevitable day-in, day-out drudgery. It culminates in a shot from cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt that feels like the heightened farce of Preston Sturges rubbing shoulders with the harrowingly accurate social commentary of George Romero — Joe disappearing among automatons who ascend a crooked walkway to factory gates, a walkway built as such solely to obscure the view of whatever’s straight ahead. 

The song cuts off right as Joe punches his time card, entering the dungeon known as American Panascope’s advertising department. There, for a half-decade, Joe has withered under the flickering fluorescent lights — a former firefighter whose perpetual illnesses of indeterminate origin forced him to quit that job and settle for this one. It’s work he could’ve done in six months but to which he’s devoted several years — time he wishes he had back like gold in his hand.

Joe’s boss, Mr. Waturi (Dan Hedaya), delights in middle-management machinations. And it’s here that Shanley gives you a sense for the interior lives of even the lousiest people in Joe’s life. You get the sense Mr. Waturi shot awake in bed one night, awakened from a dream about artificial testicles as the next million-dollar idea for American Panascope. Now the prototypes sit on his desk, tchotchkes for him to twirl as he embarks on endlessly repetitive phone conversations. Hedaya, one of many emeritus “that guy” character actors to turn up here, elevates lines like “I know he can get the job … can he do the job?” and “I’m not ARGUING that with you” into arias of aggression and aggravation. So familiar with the refrain is Joe that he seems able to conduct its rise and fall while carrying grotesquely clotted coffee to his desk.

Visiting his umpteenth doctor (Robert Stack), Joe is told he has a brain cloud — a “black fog of tissue straight down the center of his brain.” Here is the film’s most pleasant setting up to this point, ornate wood paneling and a crackling fireplace, and it’s the one in which Joe learns he’s going to die. Shanley understands the stentorian authority on which Stack built his career and deploys it shrewdly here, helping us understand why Joe wouldn’t seek a second opinion even if he could afford one on his $300 weekly salary. A brain cloud, Joe is told, is rare, incurable and advanced, allowing him four or five good months. “Four or five months?!” Joe barks incredulously. “But I don’t feel good right now!

The movie never mocks Joe for either his pathological hypochondria or his obeisant response to this goofy diagnosis. Of course a brain cloud is what’s wrong with him. Why wouldn’t a brain cloud be what’s wrong with him? This man who once ran into burning buildings is now trapped inside a conflagration of his own choosing. For as much as Hanks is often likened to Jimmy Stewart, you can see the Jack Lemmon in him here — a man irritated by how invisible he has made himself and invigorated by the opportunity for a little bit of emancipation and liberation.

After a three-hour lunch, Joe returns to his office to gather his things, tell off Waturi and finally ask out DeDe, the administrative assistant to whose movements he’s so attuned he can hear the fabric on her dress shifting 20 feet away. DeDe is one of three different characters played by Meg Ryan, which makes this both the only good film to co-star Ryan and Hanks and a vehicle for some of the bravest work Ryan has ever done. Rather than obscuring her anxieties behind perky peccadilloes, Ryan affords all of these characters a psychological complexity conducive to their level of self-awareness.

For DeDe, it’s the way she can’t simply give her hand over to Joe after he extends his to her during dinner; she touches him, eventually, but with her fist clenched tight in a nervous energy she doesn’t understand. Even if she can’t quite articulate it, DeDe is unwilling to be the canvas on which Joe can paint his carefree choices. He tells her he’s dying in the throes of a passionate kiss, she decides she doesn’t want to be a final fling and leaves his apartment. Joe seems to realize the rotten value of such a carnal connection anyway; not for nothing does the next morning find him with the window open and the curtains billowing to get all those musty feelings out of there.

On that breeze bursts in Lloyd Bridges as Graynamore, a highfalutin businessman who comes to Joe with a proposition. To keep his superconductor business going, Graynamore needs a rare mineral that can only be found on the island of Waponi Woo — a Polynesian outpost populated by a tribe of European origin whose name means “little island with a big volcano.” The island’s tribe will give Graynamore mineral rights if Graynamore can give them someone that would willingly jump into their volcano to appease a fire god they believe will otherwise sink the island.

Enter Joe Banks and his brain cloud, who can (on Graynamore’s dime) live like a king for the next 20 days and then die like a man. Having studied up on Joe’s firefighter heroics, Graynamore plays to Joe’s burgeoning courage and he accepts with the nonchalance of a guy agreeing to hang out with a friend he only sort-of likes. (Note, too, how the crooked road of American Panascope’s walkway is carved into Joe’s dingy apartment wall.)

Armed with four credit cards and a limo driver named Marshall (the inimitable Ossie Davis), Joe assembles a wardrobe and all the accoutrements he’ll need for his journey. Set to a Brazilian pop number and breezily edited, it’s nevertheless a morbid montage: Here’s a guy for whom life’s ultimate splurge presents itself only once he’s facing death. “You’re coming into focus now,” Marshall tells Joe once his long locks are shorn into the customary Hanks hairdo. Marshall is referring less to any sort of material makeover than the strength Joe once showed as a firefighter. But is there anything anyone can buy that truly prepares them to die? 

Joe asks Marshall if he will join him for dinner on his last night in New York as a sort of tactical stall, hoping Marshall can impart some advice beyond the sartorial variety. But Marshall’s wife and kids await him at home, and here Joe realizes aloud: Some doors you have to walk through alone. He never even tells Marshall what awaits him on the island; what would Marshall do with that information anyway? It’s also a fine refutation of a comfort-with-complete-strangers scene where Joe’s life would be reaffirmed that lesser films would’ve included. Instead, Shanley zeroes in on the low-key terror with which Joe must lie awake with the next step of his decision, accompanied by Elvis Presley’s eerie, airy cover of “Blue Moon.”

In Los Angeles, Joe meets Angelica, the first of two Graynamore daughters (also played by Ryan). Greeting Joe with a garishly drawn welcome sign, she’s trusted only to be Joe’s chauffeur and babysitter for the day before his boat can leave. By her own admission, Angelica is a flibbertigibbet. 

Joe Versus the Volcano is a film during which I fixate on a new small detail each time. A couple years ago, it was Joe’s interaction with Angelica on the dock before he departs. The night before, Angelica reveals her greatest fear to Joe — punctuated by a stunningly forthright line of dialogue about suicide that echoes the seriocomic masterworks of Billy Wilder. Joe doesn’t know what to say other than to suggest such things aren’t her business to decide — the hypocrisy given his own pending decision readily apparent but recognizably human — and to let Angelica know that he’s happy just to talk with her. Uncomfortable and perhaps utterly unfamiliar with such kindness and forthrightness, Angelica freaks out and takes Joe home. 

Joe is not yet any closer to the full reclamation of his nerve, but he has helped someone who would tell you she never had any nerve herself understand that you can be brave and terrified. In turn, Angelica has helped Joe realize that it’s OK to voice his fears because someday someone will offer him compassion in return, even if it’s not her. Even if Joe doesn’t say it to Angelica, he expresses it to her in the tremulous farewell clasp he gives her at the dock before the ship, named the Tweedle Dee, sets sail.

The Tweedle Dee’s captain is Graynamore’s other daughter, Patricia. Compared to ditzy DeDe and amped-up Angelica, Patricia seems the most traditionally “Meg Ryan” on the surface — a sharp-tongued skipper who insists on calling Joe by the name Felix because she always does what she wants. Or so she thinks. 

Patricia reveals what she has been promised in exchange for participating in her father’s plan, and as she says: “I feel ashamed because I had a price. He named it, and now I know that about myself.” What we learn about ourselves can be tranquil and troubling in equal measure, and Joe Versus the Volcano addresses Patricia’s revelations with a sort of radical honesty that Joe eventually matches when revealing his volcano destination. With so much talk of suicide, shame and self-loathing, it’s no surprise that Joe Versus the Volcano wasn’t a date-night hit in the way Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail would be. But I’d argue that it’s the only believably romantic film Hanks and Ryan made together because it embraces the uncertainty of romance over its inevitability — the excitement that comes from not knowing if two people will work rather than the expectation that they wind up together. Then again, few romantic comedies find time for coming to terms with mortality, as Joe eventually does when dwarfed by a rising moon and humbled by a higher power “whose name he does not know.” At a time when specific denominational fervor is most foul, the film’s agnostic acknowledgment of larger universal forces is greatly welcome.

After a series of incredible circumstances, Joe and Patricia arrive at Waponi Woo — where the tribe’s explained European origins let Shanley get away with casting Nathan Lane and Abe Vigoda as Waponi tribespeople. It’s presented as a sort of sitcom version of the Kurtz compound in Apocalypse Now, colorful, loud and driven by Vigoda’s droll, withering punchlines. But even here, Shanley gets in another cut at capitalism: So comfortable with their orange-soda bounty are the Waponi that none of them will volunteer to jump into the volcano themselves. And the film’s ending, which might feel like a feel-good cop-out after the resignation and resolve Joe and Patricia express at the lip of the volcano, ties back to the question of whether the lives sacrificed were truly given freely … or simply bought. (An alternate ending for the film, scrapped after poor testing, found Joe and Patricia more openly confronting her father about his fetid plans.)

It would be easy for Joe Versus the Volcano to embrace misanthropy, archness and insincerity, to be content as a fulminating rant in fairytale clothing. Instead, it’s a film that asserts, in no uncertain terms, that it’s OK to be afraid, that arriving at a place of emotional strength and honesty is rarely easy, and that leaving yourself open to vulnerability can help you reclaim something you believed to be lost forever. At the same time, it understands humans are complicated creatures capable of gracious and gruesome things. 

“We’ll jump, and we’ll see. That’s life,” Patricia says near the end of the film, arriving at a similar awakening as Joe: Your whole life is always still ahead of you, no matter how much smaller that whole grows with each sunset. It’s why we take the leap to look out for one another and ourselves. In these times, such messages are worth taking to heart and such films as Joe Versus the Volcano are worth treasuring. Stay home, stay safe, stay intelligently informed, stay well and stay hopeful.



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An award-winning film critic and features reporter, Nick has professionally written or gabbed about movies for Illinois newspapers, national syndicates, Playboy, The Art Immortal, The Film Yap and Midwest radio stations. He once drummed in a Billy Joel cover band known as Silly Joel and freely presents his Letterboxd page to engage and mock if you wish: https://letterboxd.com/ragekage79/


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