By Riley Simpson
Joe Versus the Volcano
-Three and a half stars out of four
“Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe who had a very lousy job…” is the first thing on the screen during the opening credits of the 1990 movie, “Joe Versus the Volcano.” However, this statement doesn’t do his
job justice. Not only is it lousy, but it can also be described as “miserable,” “horrible,” “vile,” “grim,” or and other adjective also used in the titles of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books.
Everyman Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) works for a medical supply company called Achi, which prides itself on being “the home of the rectal probe.” And yes, it’s right across form New York City in (you guessed it) New Jersey! The only source of life in Joe’s little slice of hell is a little flower growing in the walkway into work. But as we see in the first scene, the workers of Achi seem to purposely squash the plant on their way in.
Anyway, Joe is a hypochondriac—he thinks he’s always sick. After a trip to his doctor, he discovers that he has developed a “brain cloud,” (a completely fictional medical condition, so none of you hypochondriacs out there had be worrying about this) which puts a timer on Joe’s last days. Long story short, Joe is visited by a zany business entrepreneur named Samuel Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges, the air-traffic controller from “Airplane!”), who proposes a deal to Joe: jump in a volcano to appease a primitive island race, the Waponi, so they will trade their precious material with Graynamore. And since Joe is dead anyway, he welcomes the idea.
So Graynamore funds a shopping spree and a trip to Waponi Woo so Joe can “live like a king and die like a man.”
Now, “Joe” is basically three parts rolled into one: the first is Joe’s awful job and living conditions in New York City, the second is Joe’s “king-living,” where he shops ’till he drops and travels to Los Angeles, and the third is his sea voyage to the Pacific island where he meets his ultimate doom.
Not only are there plot parts , but three separate performances by Hanks’ frequent co-star Meg Ryan (who was in “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail” with Hanks). First, she plays Joe’s co-worker, DeDe, a sheepish, introverted typist, who is Joe’s first love in the movie. But when Joe tells her, he’s dying she bolts. What a girl! Next, she plays Graynamore’s off-beat daughter, Angelica in Los Angeles. With her fiery red hair and a personality to match, she describes herself as a “flibberdigibbit,” which is pretty much a loud and obnoxious person. Finally, she plays Angelica’s blond and beautiful sister, Patricia, who is a free-spirited sailor and ends up being Joe’s true love.
Besides Ryan, “Joe” features an extremely strong supporting cast of characters, including the hilarious Dan Hedaya as Joe’s boss, the belittling and controlling Mr. Waturi, who frequents the line “I’m not arguing that!” Ossie Davis has a very memorable role as Joe’s friendly and advising limo driver. Even the island people of Waponi Woo stand out as great co-stars, especially with their knack for physical comedy and love for orange soda (and I’m serious about that last part.)
Writer and director John Patrick Shanley provides “Joe” with a witty script. An example of this smart comedy resides in a scene where Joe and Marshall are tuxedo-shopping. “Feel like I’m getting married,” Joe says. “I feel like I’m giving you away,” responds Marshall.
Shanely also makes each scene stand apart from the last, truly enforcing the whole “three-movies-in-one-deal.” I mean the sets are beautiful and different: the New York ones are dreary and gray, the Los Angeles sets jump off the screen with color and life while the Pacific scenes are exotic and vibrant.
To touch on themes for a moment, the long winding road that the Achi employees use to get to work is also Achi’s company logo, the shape of a hole in Joe’s apartment, the lightning boat that strikes Patricia’s boat later in the movie, and the path that leads up to the volcano. It represents the path a man must take to find his destiny. “No. But there are certain times in your life when I guess you’re not supposed to have anybody, you know?” Joe says. “There are certain doors you have to go through alone.”
Now, one can assume from the first line of the movie that “Joe” is a fantasy tale. Also, you know it’s a fairy tale by the way-too-happy ending. It’s weak and somewhat clichéd and it almost ruins the ride. In the movie’s most magical scene, as Joe and Patricia are shipwrecked, Joe’s super-duper luggage comes to his rescue.
Later in the film, as he and Patricia are yet again “cast away” (Ha! Tom Hanks joke!) at sea and his luggage yet again emerge from underwater to rescue the couple, Joe says ” I tell you one thing, though. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we’re gonna take this luggage with us!”
See? Magical. And as Mr. Waturi would say, “I’m not arguing that!”