Joe Versus The Volcano is the very definition of a weird cult film, but it just happens to star two beloved Hollywood stars – Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. For Hanks, the 1990 film came at a time when he was a box office comedy superstar, coming off hits like Big and Turner & Hooch. Ryan starred in When Harry Met Sally… the year before. Joe should have been a box office smash, as the first meeting of two stars on the rise.
Instead, Joe was met with a mixed audience response (even though critics loved it). And it’s not hard to see why. The movie is downright weird, and among the strangest movies not directed by Terry Gilliam. It marks the directing debut of playwright John Patrick Shanley, who won the Oscar for writing Moonstruck and had just written two critically panned movies in a row.
For Joe, Shanley ditched any attempt at crafting a realistic romantic comedy. Instead, he decided to write a parable about Joe Banks (Hanks), a man stuck in a terrible job who is convinced his life is about to end when a doctor (Robert Stack) tells him he’s got a terminal disease called “Brain Cloud.” The next day, Samuel Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges) visits him with a proposition. He’ll make the last days of Joe’s life amazing if he goes to Waponi Woo and jumps in the volcano so he can have access to a rare mineral the natives have. Believing that he has nothing to live for and his life is pointless, Joe takes the offer.
This all sounds crazy, but the point of Joe is if you don’t like the cards that life has dealt you, reshuffle the deck. Every step in life is about taking some kind of risk. While that usually doesn’t involve deciding between jumping into a volcano and loving someone, the film is still far more relatable than any glossy Hollywood romance where the guy gets the girl with few road bumps along the way.
It helps that the leads are so endearing. Hanks is having an infectious amount of fun as Joe, a role that tests both his comedic and dramatic skills. Ryan is excellent in three roles that reflect three different parts of Joe’s psyche. In each act of the film, she plays a different part. This ultimately builds to her role as Patricia, who really inspires Joe to take a leap forward in his life.
Another surprisingly strong part of the film is Georges Delerue’s whimsical score. ILM also provides some fantastic visual effects. They might not have meant to look artificial at the time, but the hand-made look of the effects adds to the film’s dreamlike quality.
Joe Versus the Volcano finally reached Blu-ray on June 20 through the Warner Archive. It looks marvelous, presenting the film in its full, 2.40:1 aspect ratio. The cinematographer on the film was Stephen Goldblatt, whose recent work includes The Intern and The Help. The film moves from a dingy, Brazil-esque world to a brightly-lit world of Los Angeles. It’s amazing how well Shanley and Goldblatt use the frame, making it impossible to figure out how this movie could have been cropped for VHS.
While the film looks outstanding, the extras are thin. Warner Archive typically just ports over everything from a film’s DVD release, as they did here.
- Behind the Scenes – This is four-minute EPK from 1990 that features brief interviews with Hanks, Ryan and Shanley. Do not watch this before seeing the movie!
- Music Video – Former Animals frontman Eric Burdon sings “Sixteen Tons.” The song is appropriately used in the film’s opening.
Joe Versus the Volcano is a modern fairy tale, complete with a moral. But the film is so wacky that it’s never didactic. The fairy tales we share with kids today probably sounded as bizarre as Joe. How is Snow White’s magic apple any more realistic than a tribe of islanders convinced a man has to jump into a volcano to save them? This is a wonderfully unique film and one you can fall in love with once you take the jump, just like Joe does in the film.
“Dear God, whose name I do not know, thank you for my life,” Joe says to the sky. “I forgot how big . . . Thank you for my life.”
Thanks to Warner Archive for a copy of this Blu-Ray to review. You can buy this title at WBShop.com.