Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
To most people, 1990ís Joe Versus the Volcano stands as a minor Tom Hanks vehicle. If remembered at all, itís thought of as the first - and least successful - the least successful of his three pairings with Meg Ryan. After this, theyíd meet again in 1993ís Sleepless In Seattle, and they also reconvened for Youíve Got Mail in 1998. Each of those last two flicks made more than $100 million, while Volcano fell shy of $40 million.
Surprisingly, however, Volcano seems to have built a minor cult following over the last 12 years. To be sure, its devotees donít rival larger factions of fans for films like Buckaroo Banzai, but the film seems to have maintained a pretty decent audience over the years.
Personally, I know I saw the flick theatrically, but I remember little about the experience. I seem to recall that it did little for me, but it quickly left my mind. Iíve not thought of the movie much over the past 12 years, so my recent screening on DVD meant Volcano largely offered a new experience for me.
Volcano follows Joe Banks (Hanks), a lonely schlub who works at a dismal job. Heís a serious Born Loser sort for whom nothing goes right, though it used to be different. At one point, he was a courageous firefighter, but now heís a neurotic hypochondriac living a dead-end existence.
That latter concept becomes literal after yet another visit to a doctor. After a battery of tests, Joe learns he has a ďbrain cloudĒ and only has about six months to live. This actually liberates Joe, who departs his miserable career and becomes a much peppier person.
Soon a stranger knocks on his door: tycoon Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges). He needs a particular natural product found only on the South Pacific island of Waponi Woo, but they require nothing in trade that he can provide. Unless, that is, Graynamore can locate someone willing to leap into an active volcano.
The Waponis believe that unless someone sacrifices himself every hundred years, the gods will destroy the island. The clockís a-ticking, and Graynamore approaches Joe for the job. After all, heís doomed anyway, and heíll be able to live his final weeks in style.
Joe agrees and starts on his journey. He lives it up on Graynamoreís dime and then heads to LA, from where heíll take a boat to Waponi Woo. First he meets Graynamoreís daughter Angelica (Ryan), a self-described flibbertigibbet who looks like she came straight from a Forties film noir. She gets him prepared for the trip, and he soon encounters Angelicaís half-sister Patricia (Ryan again), whoíll accompany him on the boat.
The two take a rough ride and quickly fall in love. Eventually they make it to Waponi Woo, where a variety of semi-unpredictable events occur. All of the builds toward the inevitable climax, in which we find out what Joe does versus that volcano!
I recently read a comment about Volcano that called it ďGilliam-liteĒ, and in some ways, that interpretation seems apt. To be sure, the gloomy early scenes look straight from Terry Gilliamís oeuvre, and thereís a certain anarchic wackiness to some later bits that also feels akin to his work. However, I didnít think Volcano often came across as a Gilliam knockoff. If the early tone persisted, then Iíd agree with that determination, but Volcano eventually makes its own way in the world.
On the negative side, I occasionally thought Volcano tried a little too hard to be quirky. The Waponi culture seemed self-consciously nutty, and a shipwreck scene too actively evoked memories of Gilliganís Island. This didnít feel clever; it came across as too much of an overt wink at the audience.
Still, I canít complain too much, for Volcano never pretended to be anything other than an over-the-top semi-spoof. Much of the film seemed hammy and overdone, but that was the point. It presented settings and characters in a very artificial way and actively attempted to create a retro-Hollywood phoniness. I mean, check out the glamour lighting given to Ryan as Angelica; it nearly approached the comically overstated tones seen on Morticia in the Addams Family movies.
Volcano offered a slight story and could be too clever for its own good, but I still enjoyed it. To my everlasting amazement, Ryan was one of the movieís strongest elements. I usually donít like her, but I thought she was consistently entertaining in her three roles. (At the start of the flick, she also played Dede, a secretary in Joeís office.) As with much of the movie, Ryan overemoted, but to amusing effect. Patricia was the only role she played straight, but she kept her interesting nonetheless. Still, I preferred her haughty and throaty take on Angelica; it was fun to Ryan let loose on such a bitchy character.
And by the way - since when did Ryan look hot? Sheís always been the cutesy girl next door; while I never thought she was unattractive, she never did much for me. However, as both the Graynamore sisters, she came across as very sexy. Actually, Angelica reminded me a lot of Nicole Kidman, and that ainít a bad thing!
As for Hanks, he neither helped nor harmed the movie. He lacked much presence and didnít create a very compelling character. During the early parts, that made sense, but as Joe grew, I didnít feel the change. Nonetheless, Hanksí work did nothing to mar the flick, even though he didnít add any spark to it.
An unusual romantic comedy, Joe Versus the Volcano isnít a classic, but itís reasonably interesting nonetheless. The movie occasionally seems too self-conscious and precious for its own good. However, for the most part it provides an entertaining and clever experience that merits a look.