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MMYIF: Joe Versus the Volcano

 My Misspent Youth In Films...

Joe Versus the Volcano
Directed by: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges
Released: March 9, 1990

When a hypochondriac learns that he is dying, he accepts an offer to throw himself in a volcano at a tropical island, and along the way there, learns to truly live.

What I Thought Then

I remember there was a lot of slapstick humor in this, as well as the second-most-famous set of luggage in all of nerd-dom.

What I Think Now

Well, if this isn't some biting social satire dressed up as a romantic comedy draped loosely across a fairy-tale framework. It's kind of funny how having a soul-sucking job in a depressing office just doesn't seem all that relatable at 10, but feels much more personal now, as does Joe's lonely, vacuous home-life. (23 was a dark time for me, okay?) There's a theatricality to this movie that feels like a less-nihilistic version of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. During the opening credits, we see Joe among a sea of similarly dressed faceless business people, walking through prison-like bars into a building facade that looks like a giant robot with doors for teeth. The company's logo--which looks like a lightning bolt coming up from the ground--is a visual motif that occurs throughout the film, in everything from the cracks in Joe's apartment walls to the path up the side of the volcano to a literal bolt of lightning.

It ain't subtle, is what I'm saying.

But it mostly works. While everything in the periphery of the main action is over-the-top and bonkers, Joe's plight remains relatable, and Tom Hanks is excellent at balancing affability with chaos. The supporting cast is filled out with character actors like Ossie Davis, Robert Stack, and Dan Hedaya, who swoop in to deliver a funny scene and then wander away from the narrative. The only thing that's kind of hit-or-miss in that regard is Meg Ryan, playing every single woman in the movie. All three of them.

I don't want to poo-poo her performance too much. Her main role is as Patricia, Joe's ultimate love interest, and that works really well. While Hanks and Ryan hadn't yet been trademarked as America's sweethearts, you can see their easy romantic chemistry. When they just sort of fall in love for no reason in the last act, you buy it. What works less well is Ryan's other two portrayals, first as a sickly coworker of Joe's named DeDe and then as Patricia's artsy sister Angelica. They're both very big performances in the mode Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, but Ryan is not Sellers and that sort of theatrical conceit just doesn't play as well in 1990, even in an off-beat comedy like this one. She's clearly having fun, and those scenes are entertaining, but it does take you out of the movie a bit.

The other thing worth commenting on is the Waponis, a tribe of volcano-worshipping Pacific islanders who have re-formed their culture around their love of orange soda. Many of the secondary characters on the island are played by legitimate Pacific islanders, but the speaking roles go to... [checks notes]... Abe Vigoda and Nathan Lane...? This is not a loving or nuanced portrayal of the peoples of the region, nor is it intended to be. This segment of the movie is taking potshots at corporate imperialism, and the Waponi tribe's heritage is explained in such a way as to make the casting plausible. So it's not like egregiously insensitive, but three decades later it does feel like a weird choice.

Apart from that, it's pretty endearing. The jokes are funny, the commentary is sufficiently toothy, and the emotional beats resonate. Hanks is having a lot of fun on screen and you can't help but have fun along with him.


Yes. The stuff that works vastly outpaces the stuff that doesn't, and the social satire feels as relevant today as it did in thirty-one years ago.

Tune in next week for some heroes on the half-shell...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.