Take This Leap: Revisiting the Optimism of ‘Joe Versus the Volcano’

Joe Versus the Volcano Movie Film

In the long and varied career of the great Tom Hanks, Joe Versus the Volcano is one of those neglected footnotes from that strange liminal phase between Big in 1988 and A League of Their Own in 1992, when the actor had already scored his first few hits, but still hadn’t quite emerged as the generational megastar that he would eventually become. During those years, he starred in other such curios as Joe Dante’s paranoid slapstick comedy The ’Burbs, and whatever the hell you want to call Brian De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Written and directed by esteemed playwright John Patrick Shanley, who’d won an Academy Award for his Moonstruck screenplay a few years before, Joe Versus the Volcano is by far the most bizarre, most heartfelt and best of those interstitial Hanks films — and recognition of its magic is long overdue. That it was rejected upon its release 30 years ago is a shame, but unsurprising. Audiences were lured to the cinema by the promise of an uncomplicated romantic comedy, and what they got instead was something utterly baffling; a sincerely spiritual fantasy that urged them to grapple with mortality, and take a fearless plunge into the absurdity of happiness. That such an unashamedly, even aggressively optimistic vision remains largely uncelebrated to this day is criminal.

For those expecting to feel the embrace of conventional filmmaking, Shanley immediately administers a shock to the system. The debut director’s visually virtuosic opening salvo is more capitalist nightmare than rom-com high jinks, more Fritz Lang than Richard Curtis. It’s a horrifying dystopian sequence set to Eric Burdon’s heavy rendition of “Sixteen Tons,” depicting a funereal procession of workers who barely seem to be alive, plodding down a torturous lightning bolt path towards their jobs at the smoggy American Panascope corporation. Among these half-dead hostages of the factory is Joe Banks (Tom Hanks), who looks despairingly towards the heavens as Shanley’s camera spirals overhead.

Joe’s existence at the beginning of the film consists of misery upon misery. His soul-sucking workplace is a joyless hellhole of windowless claustrophobia, droning fluorescent lights, broken hatstands, congealed coffee and never-ending shouting matches over the phone. Joe’s boss, the odious Mr. Waturi (Dan Hedaya), apparently has no purpose in the world other than to perpetuate this torment, making sure that there can be no respite from the woe of his subterranean office. Happiness, according to Waturi, is impossible when you’re an adult: “Nobody feels good! After childhood, it’s a fact of life!”

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Joe Versus the Volcano Movie Film

Nobody feels good, but Joe feels particularly terrible. On top of the crushing capitalist tedium that eats away at his humanity, he’s chronically sick with a condition that no doctor can identify or explain. When at last he’s diagnosed with a terminal “brain cloud,” and told that he has five months to live, his pallor suddenly gives way to vigour, as if his death sentence catalyses a resurrection. Knowing what’s wrong with him, and that his demise is imminent, Joe resolves to transform himself, beginning with an emphatic excoriation of his own passivity and the awful business that’s strangled him for so long. “I’ve been too chicken shit afraid to live my life,” Joe rants at Waturi as he quits his job, “so I sold it to you for 300 freakin’ dollars a week!”

Throughout a first act that’s almost unbearably dreary, Shanley captures the all too familiar way in which modernity ensnares its victims and empties them of hope. Joe stands among the most painfully recognisable everymen in film history — overburdened and undervalued, anaesthetised to the sublime beauty of the world, programmed over the years by an increasingly myopic culture to believe that incessant toil is the only thing that really matters. He and his fellow catatonic workers have, without even knowing, surrendered all of the meaning that might have enriched their lives, and settled into a mechanical rhythm of desperate exertion that becomes more and more difficult to break with each cycle.

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Joe Versus the Volcano Movie Film

The process of extrication from that rhythm is the beating heart of Joe Versus the Volcano —  realising that you’ve allowed fear to beat down your ambitions and govern your life for too long, and mustering the courage to act upon that realisation. Snapped out of his sombre trance, Joe finally rises to confront his anxieties and pursue his desires. He regresses to boyhood, tears down his walls and allows wonder back into his life. He’s able once more to see himself as so much more than just another cog in the ruthless machinery — as an individual capable of recognising the preciousness of the present moment, and experiencing genuine fulfilment. He takes his first bold step into this rediscovered world of possibility when he asks his former co-worker DeDe (Meg Ryan) out to dinner, and then launches himself into the vast unknown when he accepts a bizarre offer from eccentric billionaire Samuel Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges) — to jump into an active volcano on the Pacific island of Waponi Woo as a human sacrifice, in exchange for a few weeks of unlimited wealth.

On his breezy voyage of self-discovery, Joe encounters several characters of varying kookiness, who each offer him some sort of idiosyncratic insight into the kind of person that he wants to be in the time that he has left. There’s Marshall the chauffeur (Ossie Davis), who guides Joe through a shopping spree in order to teach him to not let anybody fill in the blanks of his identity for him. Then there’s the comically dramatic luggage salesman (Barry McGovern), whose passion for steamer trunks verges on zealotry, and who teaches Joe the importance of — well, luggage. And finally, there are the billionaire’s daughters, Angelica and Patricia Graynamore (Meg Ryan and Meg Ryan), two love interests who are both dealing with aches and insecurities of their own.

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Joe Versus the Volcano Movie Film

Ryan will inevitably be best remembered for her work in When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail — three titans of the standard romantic comedy canon. But she was never funnier or more captivating than she is here in Joe Versus the Volcano — and apart from a role in Jane Campion’s blistering erotic thriller In the Cut, she would never be given another role as distinctive and complex as Shanley’s disillusioned triptych. Embodying three very different women, Ryan matches the versatile empathy of Shanley’s writing. As DeDe, she’s slight and timorous — impressed at first by Joe’s eruptive hopefulness, but then terrified when she learns about his condition, unwilling to commit to somebody whose doom is impending. As Angelica, she’s all technicolour artifice concealing deep vulnerability — projecting the image of a swaggering socialite, when in reality she’s depressed that she’s still dependent on her father’s money. And as Patricia, Joe’s sailing companion and eventual romantic partner, she’s a fortress of self-confidence besieged by self-doubt.

The final act of the film, which features Abe Vigoda as the leader of a tribe with a peculiar addiction to orange soda, is by far the most ridiculous, but also the most moving. Before Joe reaches the island, he finds himself lost at sea alongside an unconscious Patricia, floating aboard his luggage after their ship is destroyed in a typhoon. In an astonishing hallucinatory moment, a dying Joe watches as the moon, shimmering and colossal, rises above the horizon. With arms outspread, he looks once more towards the heavens, this time not out of despair, but out of amazement — allowing the sheer wonder of his humble existence to flood in and wash over him. His grateful words, which he surely believes will be his last, are those of a man who’s never been more alive, at peace with himself and his place in the universe: “Dear God, whose name I do not know — thank you for my life. I forgot how big… thank you.”

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Joe Versus the Volcano Movie Film

There will always be those who find that they can’t quite buy into Joe Versus the Volcano, who resist its strangeness and find themselves alienated by its staunch refusal to adhere to their expectations of the genre. That’s fine, of course. But for those willing to throw caution to the wind and take the leap with Joe, the experience is resonant and rewarding. Joe Versus the Volcano is as thoughtful and sensitive as it is goofy. It brims with the sort of amazement that can reawaken forgotten feelings, and resuscitate a heart clogged by ennui. It might be one of the most hopeful films ever made — and that, I think, is as good a reason as any to revisit it right now.

Cian Tsang (@CianHHTsang) studied English Literature at UCL, and is now a writer based in London. He spends most of his time listening to the Twin Peaks soundtrack.