Misunderstood Movies Part IV: John Patrick Shanley’s “Joe Versus the Volcano”

joe-versus-the-volcano-originalWe all have them, movies that we absolutely love and will defend to our dying day. Some people call them guilty pleasures, I call them movies misunderstood by the masses. You know, movies we love even more because we know how misunderstood they are to most everybody else on the planet. I’m talking about movies that you may be embarrassed to say you not only like, but think are absolutely brilliant when confronting the mass populace of differing opinions and the harsh words of many well respected critics.

Joe Versus the Volcano is a perfect example of a movie that has been grossly misunderstood by both a large number of critics and general audiences alike. Follow the jump to see why I feel this movie has been so misunderstood.

Joe Versus the Volcano – Director John Patrick Shanley (1990)

joe_contro_il_vulcano_tom_hanks_john_patrick_stanley_014_jpg_uwgkRotten Tomatoes Rating: Critic – 58%, Audience – 45% // IMDB Rating – 5.5

Rather than speculate as to why this film has gotten such a bad rap, I’m just going to try to focus on the positives and explain why it’s such a wonderful movie. Because let’s face it, this a fanfuckingtastic film!

The short version is best summed up by IMDB:

When a hypochondriac learns that he is dying, he accepts an offer to throw himself in a volcano at a tropical island, and along the way there, learns to truly live.

Yes, this is true, the movie really is as simple as that single sentence synopsis, though I prefer the even shorter, and just as accurate tagline, “A story of love, lava and burning desire“, but the true wonder of this film, its pulse, lies in the writing, directing, grand set designs, and most of all the heart and soul that holds it all together, the actors. In other words, every aspect of the film.

Director and writer John Patrick Shanley took his hopeless romantic Oscar winning themes from Moonstruck (1987); mysticism, yearning, and desire, and framed them in an adult fable reminiscent of those traditional Hollywood romanticism films of yesteryear. The dialogue consists of a multitude of lines you wish you could say throughout your daily routine, but usually never do. They’re spoken by someone who is truly living in all the glory of each waking moment, or has nothing to lose. And like any good cinematic fairytale whose demographic is aimed at mostly adults, as the film unfurls so too does your sense of wonder.

It’s easy to get swept up in all of the fantastical charm of this movie just from the story, characters, and presentation, but having a one-of-a-kind set designer creating the memorable backdrops is the icing on the cake. Bo Welch, whose handiwork as a production designer can be seen in Beetlejuice (1988)Ghostbusters II (1989)Edward Scissorhands (1990)Batman Returns (1992) and countless others, here does an outstanding job of really solidifying everything, from the bizarro grit of an industrial work space, to the sterile and stuffy doctor’s office, Joe’s sad musky apartment, and as well as the exuberant zaniness of a tropical island inhabited by silliness. The man is a marvel.

joevsthevolcanolistLet’s get into the acting for a moment, the heart and soul of this film. Forget about the film’s leads for a moment, Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Meg Ryan, and Meg Ryan (take that, Peter Sellers). Though both leading man and woman put in solid comedic performances the true stars of this film lie in the scene stealing supportive cast.

It’s one thing to have an accomplished and eclectic supporting cast, but to have them all bring their A game is another thing completely, and I don’t see how anyone can watch this and not feel as though the entire cast wasn’t bringing it. There’s Abe Vigoda (pictured below) as chief of one of the silliest tribes ever committed to celluloid, the Waponis. Now, as if having Vigoda completely decked out in clothing that looks like something a 50-foot Peacock might have hurled isn’t awesome enough, on top of that the man makes it a point to deliver every line he has with a dryness and wit that perhaps no other working actor, with the exception of Bill Murray, could have pulled off.

642108663Then there’s Nathan Lane, who, unlike Vigoda, takes the Peacock garments and runs with them, literally and figuratively. Flamboyant, silly, and of course, overly extroverted, Lane’s role as Baw – The Wapuni Advice Man, is something he was born to play.

Also in roles that seem like they were born to play, if not written directly for them, are Robert Stack as the stern straight-to-the-point doctor, Lloyd Bridges (pictured below) as the eccentric billionaire whose short screen time not only overshadowed Hanks’, but eclipsed all of his comedic slapsticky roles ever, including Airplane!, Hot Shots, and his appearance on Seinfeld (Mandelbaum! Mandelbaum! Mandelbaum!). And of course I can’t forget to mention the legendary Ossie Davis, whose brief appearance as Hank’s sidekick/chauffeur/mentor elevates what would have a been a dull and just plain useless shopping montage into some of the best footage in the film. So, clearly O. Davis is the man and even more clearly, after watching all the great performances I now know that it can’t be the supporting cast turning people off to this film. What about the leads then, Hanks and Ryan? Could their performances be where all the hate for this movie lies? I love ya, Abe!

Joe8

Let’s look at these two leads for a moment and try to figure this out, starting with Hanks. Up until this point in his career Hanks was strictly a comedic actor, and a popular one with a string of successes to show for it. This is an actor who has been known to characterchurize most every role that he has been in, again, up until this point that is. In JVtV when it comes to emoting, Hanks’ reactions are far less dramatic, often subdued. Even after the 30-minute mark when the comedic tone of the story takes a giant leap from being subtle to border-line silly, and then eventually to downright absurd ridiculousness, Hanks’ physicality and reactions always remain held back and controlled.

In the 4 years following JVtV, Hanks, not including A League of Their Own (1992), would go on to tackle less comedic roles, such as The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Philadelphia (1993), and the granddaddy of his career, Forrest Gump (1994). These roles demanded more of that restraint Hanks first started exhibiting in JVtV, and you know what, though at times watching Hanks act with stricter restraint proved awkward (mullet hair not helping), ultimately his performance was a welcome change and fit snug within the fairytale reality perfectly. Now as for Meg Ryan…

joeRight in between her now iconic fake orgasm heard round the world (When Harry Met Sally… (1989) and her portrayal of Jim Morrison‘s main squeeze (The Doors (1991) Ryan performed a three ring circus of personalities that I’m sure at the time, or even now, must have opened her up to unfair comparisons to the greats who have done this feat to roaring success in the past. Talk about some tough acts to follow. There’s Alec Guiness who played eight roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Peter Sellers, who took on more than two roles in a film on more than a couple occasions, though most notably for Dr. Strangelove (1964), and of course, there’s the entire Monty Python group who all took on multiple roles for all three of their major films. So how does Meg fair when compared to those greats? I admit, not too well. But, that’s like expecting every new band you hear to sound as good as (insert an album you admire most here). It’s not going to happen. Does that mean the new band isn’t worth listening to though? I don’t think so. Ryan may not be on the same all-star team as those previous chameliac performers I mentioned but that doesn’t mean she isn’t worthy to be in the major leagues. Indeed, Ryan does a fantastic job of carrying the movie while playing the parts of Dede, the shy unassured co-worker (pictured below), Angelica, the stereotypical superficial LA woman living off of daddy’s money, and Patricia, the self assured yacht Captain and ultimate ensnarer of Joe’s heart. You go, girl!

meg-ryan-joe-vs-volcanoSo, why do so many people hate on this film? Could it be people can’t relate to the strong romanticism of the actual story, the strong performances, the tonal shifts, the general esthetics, or just the overall direction? I suppose that’s possible, however it just doesn’t make that much sense to me, and keep in mind, I am fully aware that people, in this case a vast majority, are allowed to have legitimate differing of opinions then myself. With that being said, I still think theirs is silly and mine is better, so nanny nanny poo poo to you.

Listen, we all have our volcano in life to tackle. Some pray that it never erupts on them, some try to ignore that it’s even there, and only a few of us truly have the courage to jump into the mouth of it and let the ashes fall where they may. Though most often seen as nothing other than a silly tale of accepting ones’ fate, Joe Versus the Volcano in its own odd way will always be to me a life affirming fairy tale that both entertains me and makes me want to get up off my ass, go outside, find a volcano of my own (figuratively speaking), and jump in it!

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