Joe Versus

JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO. 1990

Director: ohn Patrick Shanley

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl



I watched this film late one night when my sweety was already sleeping, & next day stumblingly tried to convey what I'd seen. "I can't remember what it was called, but it was about a guy who thought he was dying, & while it was a stupid movie on its surface level, it was also completely captivating, & I couldn't tell if the combination of cartoony stupidness & whimsical excellence was an accident, or if the screenwriter is secretly a neo-symbolist genius."

To which my sweetums replied, "Sounds like Joe Versus the Volcano."

Written & directed by John Patrick Shanley, this comedy practicially defines "quirky." It sits in an irrational twilight zone where slapstick & realism collide uneasily. It ends up far more whimsically appealing than it's blithely callous events would seem to justify.

Tom Hanks plays an Ordinary Joe with a dispiriting Dilbert job who only begins to live his life after he is told by a lying physician (Robert Stack) that he is suffering from a "brain cloud" & will soon be dead. Meg Ryan plays a succession of women with whom Joe falls in love along his Candide-like journey -- one of the few cases where a come-on line like "I feel as though I've met you somewhere before" is an honest sentiment.

Darrin McGavin plays the repulsive tycoon who makes a deal with Joe, to live the last weeks of his life like a millionaire, then go jump into a South Seas island volcano since he's dying anyway & might as well go out in a blaze of glory.

The story has no moral basis at all; the doctor & tycoon have in essence planned an elaborate murder in which the victim unknowingly colludes, but absolutely nobody in this story gets his come-uppance, whereas innocent side-characters get offed with abandon. Don't look for any sensible meaning here beyond a fairly reasonable one: "If life sucks, try quitting your job."

An incredibly talented supporting cast is often too quickly dismissed by a script that introduces them in hilarious cameos without follow-ups: Amanda Plumber as the dykie sailor girl, Carol Kane as a crazed hair stylist, Ossie Davis as the helpful driver, Barry McGovern selling luggage, & other marvelous character-moments, including Abe Vigoda as the chief of the idiotic unknown race of Waponis who are a Jewish-Oceanic tribe performing their native dances to Jewish folksongs & who subject Joe to a wild mikveh cleansing before following him to the volcano's edge.

The film repeatedly undermines its own fluffliness so that it ends up being more entertaining than most fluff. Anyone who was not won over by the creepy banality of Meg & Tom's later romances in such zombified date-flicks as Sleepless in Seattle & the even more egregiously normal You've Got Mail will vastly prefer this version of their screen lust, as even love is undermined by casting Meg in multiple roles proving Joe really can't tell one girl from another & just about any girl will do.

Conversely, anyone who thought the later Ryan/Hanks vehicles had merit will probably not like anything as smartly silly as Joe versus the Volcano that functions as an antidote to what passes for romantic comedy for the braindead plebian hordes.

A very small unpreposessing film, it starts dark & gets increasingly silly & finally upbeat, but if you think about it too long, it's all kind of dark throughout. The film qualifies as a true "sleeper" -- little-noticed when not actively dispised, yet possessing a near-cult status among a handful of people completely suckered in by a life-affirming veneer amidst the slaughter of easily discarded characters such as the ship's crew & an entire island race. Amidst the sinister slapstick are many tiny details that are easily missed, meaning it holds up to a second or third viewing when more of its Voltairian-satiric absurdist asides become evident.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl



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