Second Glance: The Melancholy Madness of ‘Joe Versus the Volcano’

Welcome to “Second Glance,” a bi-weekly column that spotlights an older film of note (thanks to an anniversary, a connection to a new release, or new disc or streaming availability) that was not as commercially or critically successful as it should’ve been. This week, in advance of its Blu-ray debut, we take a look at John Patrick Shanley’s cult fave Joe Versus the Volcano.

Most weeks, the title of this column is euphemistic, a broad indication of a movie that deserves further consideration than originally afforded, not precisely a case of a film I’m glancing at for the second time. (More often than not, it’s one I’ve seen on a half dozen or so occasions, and am taking the opportunity to proselytize about a bit.) But not this week. John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano is a film I have seen exactly once previously, upon its initial release in 1990, at a sneak preview (remember those?); the upcoming release was Pretty Woman, and Joe was the second half of the double bill. It was, to put it mildly, an incongruent pairing, done no favors by the prejudices of a 14-year-old viewer who was looking for fun from the stars of Big and When Harry Met Sally. Joe was… not that. Your teenage pre-critic hated the movie, without reservation, and considered it only dismissively in the years that followed. But I was wrong about a lot of things back then (and if you don’t believe me, I have a Chunky A cassette I’d like to sell you), so I decided to check out the film’s new Blu-ray edition from Warner Archives. Guess what? I got this one very, very wrong. (But seriously, please take this cassette, it’s harder to get rid of than that videotape in The Ring.)

Joe was the directorial debut of playwright-turned-screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, and it speaks to the commercial and critical success of his 1987 hit Moonstruck that he was handed, by a major studio, the resources to make a movie as unapologetically weird as this one. That weirdness is established right away, in an opening credit sequence that finds the employees of American Panascope (“Home of the Rectal Probe”) slogging through their muddy parking lot and clocking in for the day, to the strains of “Sixteen Tons.” Our Joe works in the advertising department, and it appears to be America’s most depressing workplace, lousy as it is with flickering fluorescents, bad coffee, and Dan Hedaya yelling.

Joe is played by Tom Hanks, sporting his worst haircut to date (yes, including The Da Vinci Code) and a wan, vampiric look that he can’t get any of his doctors to explain. Finally, one does: Robert Stack (typecast as a doomsayer in that Unsolved Mysteries era), who diagnoses Joe with a “brain cloud,” which is “a black fog of tissue running right down the center of your brain.” When Joe asks if it’s incurable, the affirmative answer is almost a relief to him. He has six months left, but most of them will be spent in perfect health. “You have some life left,” the doc advises. “My advice to you: live it well.”

Joe quickly discovers the freedom of living without consequence; he quits his job, pausing on his way out the door to both tell off his boss (a fantasy sequence as potent as sex in that yuppie-targeting turn-of-the-decade) and to ask out the pretty co-worker he could never really talk to (Meg Ryan, in the first of three roles). And then wild-eyed Lloyd Bridges shows up at his door, as a super-conductor magnate with a proposition: his most precious resource exists only on a distant island that is about to be destroyed by its volcano, unless a human sacrifice is offered up, and quick. The millionaire’s proposal: “I’m gonna hire you to jump into a volcano.”

From this 27-years-on vantage point, it’s clear that Joe Versus the Volcano was a big influence on Being John Malkovich, from its deadpan surrealism to its portraiture of depressing office culture to its romantic leading man with bad hair to the sheer deliciousness of its premise. And like that film, Joe has a sense of melancholy that transcends that goofy premise, while still reveling in it (I mean, it does end by revealing a tribal people, led by Abe Vigoda, who subsist on a diet of grapes and orange soda).

Hanks makes a good anchor – and, most often, straight man – but the real star here is Ryan’s triple play. She does her first character, co-worker DeDe, as a brunette with a high-pitched, screwball voice, and with a sense of wonder and charm typical of those films (watch her face as they’re serenaded during their one and only date). Ryan #2 is Bridges’s daughter Angelica, a bad poet and bad painter that she plays as a brassy, redheaded vamp who says of L.A., “It stinks! But it’s a great town.” And Ryan #3 is Angelica’s half-sister Patricia, which finds the actor in her familiar blonde locks and hewing closer to type. She’s still dizzily charming, but the first two characters are what stick – smaller, character turns that give her the freedom to try wild things that she was seldom afforded in her ingénue roles.

That said, Patricia gets some of Shanley’s most moving material, and that which strikes notes closest to the heartsickness of Moonstruck and earlier stage work like Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. Her highlight is a scene of open, honest confession, late one night on the rocky yacht that’s taking Joe to his destiny, which most clearly articulates the film’s main theme: that everyone feels trapped, dissatisfied, like some sort of disappointment or sell-out. “Your life seems… unbelievable,” Joe insists, underscoring the notion that one’s person’s dream life can just as easily be another’s misery, creating a circle of happiness and unhappiness that’s tough to crack. (This theme is tipped earlier, at the conclusion of a sequence of big spending and big living that finds Joe alone in his bed at the end of the night, to a needle drop of Elvis singling “Blue Moon” that’s never sounded more melancholic.)

Those notions, which creep up quietly and eloquently in between the breaks of broad comedy and winking weirdness, probably flew right over this viewer’s teenage head back in the day, but now, they’re what gives Joe its charm and emotional resonance. The picture wasn’t received so well back in the spring of 1990; The New York Times’ Vincent Canby compared it to Howard the Duck (seriously, dude?), and box office was modest, certainly when compared to Hanks and Ryan’s subsequent pairings in Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. But Joe’s heart and style dwarfs that of those movies – particularly at its conclusion, when Patricia and Joe stand on the edge of that volcano together, hand in hand. What will they do? “We’ll jump and we’ll see,” she says, sensibly. “That’s life.” And that’s also love.

“Joe Versus the Volcano” is out this week on Blu-ray, via Warner Archives.