Monday Movie: Joe Versus the Volcano
In many respects, film critics have been my heroes since I found out they existed. These were people who loved movies as much as I did but weren’t treated as weirdos because of it. In fact, they were respected. But if there’s one areas where many critics have repeatedly gotten it wrong or been behind the times, it’s comedy. Maybe people who spend so much time examing form and structure find comedy too mercurial to reconcile. Many of them tend to elevate familiar, middlebrow fare like last year’s Neighbors or 2012’s Pitch Perfect (soon to get a sequel with a bigger budget, proving that studios don’t know anything about comedy either). Meanwhile, the funniest and most daring comedies often get initially panned and then inevitably reevaluated once their cult status is undeniable. It happened with Wet Hot American Summer (Rotten Tomatoes score of 31%) and it certainly happened with John Patrick Shanley’s fancifully dark 1990 flop Joe Versus the Volcano.
To give credit where credit is due, the late Roger Ebert was an early champion of Joe and remained so throughout his life. The story concerns Joe (Tom Hanks), an overworked corporate drone/hypochondriac who finds out that his worst fears have come true and he is terminally ill. A wealthy man (Lloyd Bridges) gives him an unlimited budget to live out his last days under the agreement that he will voluntarily be tossed into a volcano by a remote Pacific island tribe whose natural resources the rich guy wants to exploit. Along the way, he meets three women, all played by Meg Ryan and all of whom represent different ideals for Joe.
The implied darkness of that story remains under the surface. Aesthetically, Shanley instead presents us a world that seems to take place in a recent, post-WWII past that never quite existed. The bold colors and the 50s/60s rock/R&B on the soundtrack help to give the film a lacquered sheen that is both kitschy and soulful, a combination that seems contradictory but will be recognizable to anyone who’s spent time in a really good, long-established tiki bar.
It’s good that people love Joe Versus the Volcano now. Revisiting it may remind some people that the best comedy is often the kind that doesn’t look or feel like anything else. That’s something to embrace, not dismiss.