Title: Joe Versus The Volcano (1990)
Writer/ Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges, Dan Hedaya, Ossie Davis
What are you afraid of in life and why aren’t you facing it? That’s what Joe Versus The Volcano is all about. There’s a moment in the film where Joe is analyzing what it is that scares him in life, and he immediately identifies it. He knows exactly what it is, and now he knows how to deal with it. I believe this is something we can all do. Some might be living dreadful unhappy lives out there, but if they took the time to analyze their fears, they would immediately identify what it is they have to do to make their lives better. We all know what we would like our lives to be like, but how many of us actually do what has to be done in order to make it better? There comes a moment in everyone’s life when we question of ourselves, our purpose here, and what we want to achieve with what little time we have on this rock. The trick is to identify the fear and attempt to conquer it. And that’s what I enjoyed the most about this wonderful lost gem known as Joe Versus The Volcano.
The film starts out with Joe Banks, a working class hero who is living the most dreadful life. He works in the advertising department of a rectal probe factory. I know right? The office in which Joe works in is the most lifeless place you can imagine, with the paint falling off the walls, zombie co-workers, and lights that suck the life right out of you. Joe doesn’t feel good, ever. He feels “blotchy” and “puffy” according to his self diagnosis. The doctor tells him that he has a “brain cloud” and that he has about six months left to live, and that his advice to him is to live what little life he has left in the best way that he can. The knowledge of his mortality triggers in Joe an appreciation for life which makes him do everything he always wanted to do. Like quitting his dead end life sucking job, which he does. On his first day as a “free man” a mysterious man named Mr. Graynamore comes to visit Joe and makes him a very interesting proposal: since Joe is already dying, Mr. Graynamore proposes to Joe that he take a trip to an unknown island to visit the Waponi Tribe. The Waponi’s worship a volcano called ‘The Great Woo’, and their volcano god needs to be appeased! Someone has to sacrifice themselves and jump into the volcano! Problem is, none of the Waponis want to die! So Mr. Graynamore offers Joe the opportunity to jump into the volcano for them. Joe thinks about it, but then Graynamore says that the trip would include all expenses paid! Then, all he would have to do is jump into the volcano, after he’s had his fun!
You know how there are some films out there that when you watch them you instantly feel a connection to them? Films where you identify with every word and situation that the film addresses? Well, that is the case with me and Joe Versus The Volcano. This is a very existential film, it constantly asks the big questions in life: why are we here? What are we supposed to do with our lives? Do you believe in God? And if you guys know me, I’m all about that type of thing, the constant questioning of this crazy trip we call life. There is this one scene that really gets to me, where Joe and his girl are drifting through the ocean without food, or water or any hope of survival in sight, and suddenly, the moon comes out looking bigger then life and Joe is entranced by it, and then he says while in awe of the moon: “Dear God, whose name I do not know, thank you for my life. I forgot how big..thank you for my life!” Wow! That scene is so profound for me because I’ve had that type of ‘spiritual experience’ where you just look at nature, at the stars, the sun, whatever it maybe and you are just in awe of everything, of life and how beautiful everything is. I love how that moment captured that kind of feeling. Consequently, the scene also sums up how I feel about the idea of God. I don’t know if theres a god out there, or what its name may be, but nature, the planet and the universe (all things I can see and know they exist) are the only true awe inspiring things in this world.
I also connected with this film because of Joe and how he works in a 9-5 job in a soul sucking office every day. There is a scene in the film in which Joe is walking to work, and suddenly he joins up with all his co-workers who are on their way to the big factory ahead. They all walk in unison looking bored, uninspired and lifeless. The scene was obviously inspired by Charlie Chaplins Modern Times (1936), another fine film that explores the intricacies of being a working class hero, a worker bee. I don’t hate my job or anything, but I understand how that kind of a job scenario could get to feel redundant and boring. I used to work in a job where I felt exactly the way that Joe feels in those scenes, where he feels like the lights in the office are sucking his life away, where you feel that every second that passes is a second less of life that you could be living in some better way. The questions that these scenes bring up are: Why are you putting up with a job that is obviously not making you happy? Where you are not doing what you love? Why aren’t you out there searching for a way to be happier? The main theme of the film is fear and the need to live our lives to the fullest. We should not be afraid to make those decisions that need to be made in order to progress in life and be a better, happier person.
The film is filled with symbolisms and visual metaphors. For example, when Joe is on his way to work, he walks down this crooked road (symbolizing how crooked the road of life can be) and this is a visual theme that keeps popping up every now and then in the film, the crooked road, which is actually shaped like a lightning bolt. Kind of the same way ‘the yellow brick road’ in The Wizard of Oz represents the road we take in life. More symbolisms can be seen through the film, for example, when we first meet Joe, we see that he is working in an office that’s devoid of life or color. In fact, in one scene, Joe tries placing a colorful lamp on top of his desk and his boss tells him: “This is not your room Joe! This is an office! Take it away!” Joe tries to lighten up his life, but the job and its requirements just won’t let him. After Joe quits, and Joe starts living life more passionately, the films changes hues and suddenly everything is that much more colorful and beautiful, by the ending of the film, Joe is full of life, love, color and passion.
Finally, theres the jumping into the volcano scene. And heres where “this movie is all symbolic and metaphorical” really kicks in because what the film is really trying to say is we all have to take chances in life, we all have to take risks; same way that Joe and Dee Dee jump into the volcano. Once again, in these last scenes the film tells us that one of the most important things in life is to live without fear, face our fears, take that chance, because that’s what lifes all about, taking chances. Who knows what will happen? But at least you tried! The film also speaks about the unpredictability of life, how any random thing can happen to us, that we can be in our worst moment in life, but even then, we need to appreciate it, and live the moment, and hang in there until life throws us its next unpredictable event.
This film comes to us from director John Patrick Shanley, the guy behind films like the ultra romantic Moonstruck (1987), one of the few romantic comedies that I truly like. He also made Doubt (2008), so the existential, the questioning part of the film makes sense as well. Strange that this film can be described as an Existential Romantic Comedy, but that’s exactly what it is! Sadly, Joe Versus the Volcano was a box office bomb. I guess it was too symbolic and existential for audiences, and so, even though it had Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan working together, the film didn’t make its money back. I know what you’re thinking; Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in a romantic comedy, and it didn’t make its money back? But you have to remember, this was their first time together on screen. It was only after Joe Versus the Volcano that they would go on to make those romantic comedies they are so known for: Sleepless In Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998). Speaking of the romantic angle, there’s a scene in which Joe is quitting his job and cleaning up his desk. He takes three books he had in his desk: The Odyssey, Robinson Crusoe and finally, Romeo and Juliet. Three books that sum up what this film is about. The big Odyssey Joe is about to take, the journey of self discovery that Crusoe goes through and finally Rome and Juliet, representing the big romance that Joe ends up having with Dee Dee, played by Meg Ryan. By the way, Meg Ryan plays all three women that Joe encounters through out the film, each performance very distinctive; each representing a different kind of woman. But together, they all make up the feminine in Joes life, kudos to Ryan for showing such range as an actress. This turned out to be a pretty lengthy review, sorry about that but this is a film I hold very close to my heart. If your feeling like seeing something funny, romantic, existential and symbolic all rolled up into one, do yourself a favor and check out this film, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Rating: 5 out of 5