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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Joe Versus the Volcano" at Ebertfest (2012)

I’m sure many expressed some form of bewilderment when Roger Ebert announced that the opening night film for his beloved Ebertfest was none other than the 1990 Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan comedy, "Joe Versus the Volcano." The reaction is understandable, even if I do hold the movie in high regard and consider it one of my all-time favorites. To many, though, "Joe Versus the Volcano" is an innocuous, disposable film that was of zero significance when it came out, especially since it failed to even attract a mainstream moviegoing audience. But that would be short-changing its success as a movie. In less superficial terms, "Joe Versus the Volcano" accomplishes what many wish more movies could and is certainly worthy of the prestigious “Opening Night” slot at Ebertfest.

So, why would some people still be baffled by this choice? This is the first of three films that would pair Tom Hanks with Meg Ryan, a pairing that would be the epitome of safe, generic, starry-eyed Romantic Comedies, which does indeed fit the description of "Sleepless In Seattle" (1993) and "You’ve Got Mail" (1998). It also should be noted that the film was written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who was fresh from winning an Oscar for one of the all-time great Romantic Comedies, "Moonstruck." All of this coupled with a misleading trailer and a poster that suggests nothing more than a charming piece of fluff, it is easy to see why the film gets confused looks from people when they hear “'Joe Versus the Volcano' is one of my favorite movies ever.” Even the critical reaction upon the film’s release was generous at best.

Yet, somehow, the movie finds its audience and over the past couple decades, it has grown in stature. Perhaps not in film history books, but to those who have either embraced it since its release or those who have gone back and given the film a second chance at the insistence of those who have embraced it. Just Google it and you will find all kinds of interesting discussions and dissections of the film's meaning from its most ardent fans. The number grows each year and while it would be inaccurate to deem it a cult phenomenon, it certainly has its loyal fanbase.

So, what’s to love about JVTV?

As Ebert wrote in his review, “I had not seen this movie before. Most movies, I have seen before. Most movies, you have seen before. Most movies are constructed out of bits and pieces of other movies, like little engines built from cinematic Erector sets. But not 'Joe Versus the Volcano.'” JVTV is a contemporary, modern day fable, but it exists in a world of its own. Aside from the exteriors in New York and Los Angeles, almost every set is a vast creation by production designer Bo Welch. Joe’s workplace is right out of the soul-crushing factory in Fritz Lang’s "Metropolis" combined with the absurist lunacy of a Terry Gilliam film or illustration. The Island of Waponi Woo is one big, colorful sight gag. Even in the vast ocean where Joe and Patricia are stranded for days, Welch and Shanley find ways to play with the landscape and make it a thing of limitless beauty.

Besides that, though, what Ebert meant was that the film was not made up of parts from other films. Not its storyline, not its characters and certainly not its dialogue. Most movies we can describe as “this meets that.” In the past 22 years since seeing JVTV, I have yet to see a film that can be described as “(something) …meets 'Joe Versus the Volcano'.” Some writers and directors—Spike Jonze, Charlie Kauffman, Michel Gondry, to name a few—have had the same kind of original voice or sensibilities and refusal to play by the rules of conventional narrative that JVTV has, but their films also distinguish themselves in their own way. JVTV is not an island onto itself, but it’s on a small island with good company.

If you are a fan of JVTV and have met other fans, chances are good that once you realize you have that in common, you start quoting it back and forth. It is that kind of movie.

“I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?”

“I’ve spent all my life trying to figure out who I am and I am tired now, you understand what I’m saying?”

“I’m not sick except for this terminal disease?”

“Very exciting… as a luggage problem.”

“Is there a ceremony or anything?” “No, you just jump in.”

“Away from the things of man, my love.”

There are many others, but I’d hate to spoil anything in the off chance someone is reading this who has never seen the film.

Shanley’s characters always speak with unbridled passion and with their heart on their sleeves. JVTV is a big studio film with lavish sets and yet the characters speak as if they are in an off-Broadway production. Next time you watch JVTV, see if you can imagine the dialogue existing on a small stage. It works. The characters are speaking directly from their hearts in a way mainstream movie characters seldom do. The movie is made up of very little expository dialogue while at the same time, it never gets too heavy-handed or indulgent. Shanley keeps his prose in check and finds that perfect balance of expressing deeply personal beliefs with genuine wit. Like Woody Allen, while pondering the meaning of life, Shanley is not above going for a silly sight gag.

Furthermore, his screenplay balances the meaning of his words with wonderful visual storytelling. Joe’s newfound love for life after being told he has a “brain cloud” is expressed in three (and more) memorable sequences: The big, amazing dog he sees and embraces before getting into his crappy little German Trabant (nice touch), the dance he does to The Beach Boys' “Come Go With Me” when stranded at sea and, of course, there’s that moon.

Hanks is the perfect choice for Joe. He brings the same boyishness, innocence and vulnerability to this film that was seen in 1988’s "Big", for which he was nominated for his first Oscar. This was around the time Hanks was coasting on films such as "The 'burbs," "Turner and Hooch" and "Bonfire of the Vanities" (another reason why JVTV is often forgotten). Meg Ryan pulls off three roles in this film and is the perfect choice for all three. She manages to take the first two, who seem at first like caricatures, and make them fully realized, flawed human beings. The odd assortment of supporting actors—Ossie Davis, Robert Stack, Abe Vagoda, Lloyd Bridges, Amanda Plummer—are all inspired choices and are all welcome walk-ons. And let it be said that there has never been a better Boss From Hell than Dan Hedaya as the terminally soulless Mr. Waturi.

What makes JVTV an anomaly as a “prestigious” film (for lack of a better word, but we are, after all, talking about the Opening Night film at Ebertfest) is that it is barely recognized as a cult film and, even if it were, it does not break cinematic ground of any kind. It just happens to be a beautifully made mainstream movie with a Spielberg-backed budget and big stars. It reaches people because of what it is in its heart, not because of what it purports to be or because of what others say it is. It doesn’t reach people mainly because no serious film scholar or cinephile wants to be seen touting a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan comedy. JVTV is romantic and it is a comedy, but it is not, in conventional terms, a Romantic Comedy. What a shame so many cannot see past the fact that it truly defies categorization.

The film represents, for many, something deeply personal. I think many of us have felt like Joe and have wished for some kind of death sentence that would liberate us for our final months on this planet. Where else could we get such courage as to jump into the mouth of a volcano? Why would any of us want to go on living as nothing more than “an advertising librarian for a medical supply company”? Many of us become so stuck in our ruts that we become instantly bored with just the thought of ourselves, as Joe does. And many of us know that, within this at-times mundane existence, our moon is out there waiting to be re-discovered.

Once Joe is away from his awful, awful job, he sees the wonder of every detail of the world around him. Perhaps—just perhaps—along with the film’s visual splendor, the philosophical nature of Shanley’s screenplay, George Delerue’s lush, romantic score (barely available as a soundtrack), the relatable characters and the completely original storyline, what people take away from JVTV is this: I honestly see the world the same way Joe sees it. But too often, like Joe, I forget that I see it that way.

My own personal history with Joe Versus the Volcano:

I am obviously one of JVTV’s loyal fans. I first saw the film on its opening weekend, but I hadn’t really planned on seeing it. I was a junior in high school in 1990 and on a lonely Saturday night, I went to the Town and Country Theater in suburban Arlington Heights, IL where, finally, they started showing Kenneth Branagh’s "Henry V." That was the film I intended on seeing that night. About 20 minutes into it, I realized that I just wasn’t up for Shakespeare. My mind was on other things and I just couldn’t get lost in it. I realized I wanted something that would put a smile on my face. I probably had my mind on a girl who wouldn’t date me, or something like that. I left and wandered into the theater playing "Joe Versus the Volcano," knowing that Ebert gave the film 3.5 stars and that Shanley was someone whom I greatly admired, not just for "Moonstruck," but his little-seen (and maybe a little ahead of its time) "5 Corners." I expected little more than a few laughs and maybe some quirky dialogue. What I got was the perfect movie at the perfect time and I couldn’t stop thinking about it when it was over.

Two more stories: In the mid-‘90s I was working at a video store and we had one of those dead afternoons in the middle of the week. A couple entered and they looked about late-20s/early 30s. They had this innocence about them, though. It almost seemed like they were either playing hookey or they didn’t have jobs at all. But they seemed eternally happy to be together. They asked if I could do them a favor and put on the last 15 minutes of a particular movie (yes, that movie). The man had never seen the end of this particular film and the woman loved it. Normally, I probably would have found this annoying (especially since they probably interrupted a movie I was already well into), but once they told me which film I felt only too happy to oblige. They sat on the floor like children embracing each other while watching the final moments of "Joe Versus the Volcano." Then they thanked me, left the store and I never saw them again.

Finally, in a junior college film course, the instructor assigned us to write an in-depth piece about a film using what we had learned in class. The only criteria he gave was that it could not be a film we had already watched and he had to have seen the film. As a test to see if this guy would stay true to his word, I requested doing a paper on "Joe Versus the Volcano." Naturally, he was skeptical and more than a little disappointed since I was one of his star pupils. How could I choose such a trifle of a film? “If you think you can find a nugget of greatness in there that makes it worth writing about, I guess go ahead.” Guess who was the only person to get an A in his class.

These three stories have taught me a few things about how people perceive JVTV: First, some movies just have to find you at the right moment in order to truly appreciate every aspect of them, so much so that they become personal to you. Secondly, The people who love JVTV always want everyone they know to see it (or see it again) so that maybe they’ll get the same things from it and the experience can be shared. Aren’t most of our favorite movies like that? Finally, some film teachers and cinephiles can be so close-minded about films that they only see them as either “mainstream and worthless” or “artsy and worthy of discussion.”

Here’s hoping the Opening Night at Ebertfest slot will alter JVTV’s reputation and will finally earn it the respect it deserves. May it live to be a thousand years old!

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