' ' Cinema Romantico: Joe Versus The Volcano

Monday, April 26, 2010

Joe Versus The Volcano

Recently I pulled up an article regarding vaunted Eyjafjallajokull and it contained the following caption: "Joe Versus The Volcano." If you know me, well, you know exactly where that led - that is, the Netflix queue. I've seen John Patrick Shanley's 1990 box office flop turned cult classic 3 times now and, if I'm not mistaken, they have somehow happened at precise 10 year intervals. Which seems perfect when considering the film's theme.

If it wasn't anything else (and it is) "Joe Versus The Volcano" would be a triumph of production design. The sets here are all larger than life and gorgeous to look at even if they come in the form of a dreary colossus of an office where beaten-down employees trudge for miles through mud to reach the flourescent-lighted innards that seem designed solely to make people ill. But they are also gorgeous to look at when they are gorgeous to look at, such as the sailboat the Joe of the title will take the island bearing the volcano of the title, where it will drift beneath wonderous pretend moons. Every last detail seems to have received vast attention and it pays off.

Joe, played by Tom Hanks, enters the aforementioned office at the film's start looking like a more pale, more frail version of Tom Cruise in "Interview With The Vampire". I guess we know he has just seen the sun but you wouldn't believe it. His boss (Dan Hedaya) is stuck in an eternal debate on the telephone ("I'm not arguing that with you") and his co-worker (Meg Ryan) appears to have asthma, probably just when she's at work. Joe retreats to his own corner of the office which he desperately - and unsuccessfully - tries to brighten with a festive lamp. A lamp his boss, of course, orders removed. My days at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage never looked so good.

Joe has a doctor's appointment. He always has doctor's appointments. He hasn't felt well, we learn, in "eight or nine years." Goodness. His doctor (Robert Stack), his office complete with a crackling fireplace, explains that Joe's problem is actually quite simple: He has a "brain cloud." He has another four or five months to live - during which he will feel terrific - and then he will die. Joe takes the news surprisingly well. He quits his job, tells off his boss, asks out that cute co-worker of his. Then something else happens. A guy named Samuel Harvey Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges) turns up to explain there is an island in the south Pacific, an island rich in a mineral Graynamore needs to keep his super conductor business profitable, and to get the orange-soda guzzling island inhabitants to give up this mineral they want a human sacrifice for their volcano, angry, roaring, and about to blow its top. Why Joe would be perfect, Graynamore reckons! And so he is. Joe agrees to do it.

He will be transported to the island by Graynamore's daughter Patrica (Meg Ryan, again) aboard that cinematic sailboat but not before he is first met in L.A. by Graynamore's other daughter, Angelica (Ryan, a third time), a poet and a painter, looking suspiciously like a young Nicole Kidman, who when Joe explains he was an "advertising librarian at a medical supply company" replies "I have no response to that." That should be everyone's response to the ancient, irritating "what do you do?" query, if you ask me.

Hanks is so fantastic the entire movie because he never refuses to stop playing straight. He is surrounded scene after scene by exemplary supporting characters (I didn't even mention Ossie Davis as a no nonsense limo driver) who are the ones required to take things up a notch and deliver manic monologues. Hanks sits back and reacts, asks questions, slowly coming to grips with the purpose of his plight.

And through it all, Shanley, the talented playwrite and screenwriter (Oscar winner for the equally operatic, romantic "Moonstruck") returns again and again to questions such as, Why are we here? What does it mean? How the hell are we supposed to live life? These, of course, are matters of the most universal, the most enormous order. Can they be figured out in an under-two-hour once-upon-a-time fairytale? I say, Why not?

The first time I watched it I remember there being so much build-up to this mysterious island and this volcano but its payoff is brief, different, strange and (uh oh) not exactly what I expected. (The movie's death knell at the box office?) Now? Twenty years later? I think the key sequence is before the island is ever reached, when the sailboat has gone under at the hands of the typhoon, and Joe and Patricia are out on the vast ocean, adrift atop Joe's expensive, watertight luggage. She she is still knocked unconscious. He rummages through his suitcases and finds a transistor radio. He locates a station playing "Come Go With Me". He sets it down and dances. Yeah, he's who-knows-where in the 65.3 million square miles of the Pacific, he has no food and barely any water, the sun's beating down on him, the potential love of his life is knocked out cold, and even if he does get rescued he's gonna have to, you know, jump into the mouth of a frickin' volcano, but right now, unmindful of any of that crap, he's just grooving to The Dell Vikings.

Has there ever been a purer expression of one man living in the moment?

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