Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) – A Review


A review of the 1990 comedy fantasy Joe Versus the Volcano starring Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges, Ossie Davis, Abe Vigoda, directed by John Patrick Shanley

Tom Hanks Meg Ryan Joe Versus the Volcano 1990
“My father always said almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.”

Joe Banks (Tom Hanks) is stuck in a dreary job wasting his life away. There is no joy to be found anywhere in this morbid office he’s locked in and works at! He’s too scared to even think of asking co-worker De-De (Meg Ryan Number One) out and spends his day enduring the monotonous sounds of his boss Dan Hedeya.

Then one day Joe’s hypochondriac fears come true when Dr. Robert Stack informs him he has a ‘brain cloud’ that is fatal. Learning he has a few months of life left Joe’s perspective on everything changes. An unusual offer comes from billionaire Lloyd Bridges offering Joe to live the high life for a few months and travel to a remote island where he will agree to jump into a volcano to appease a native god.

Joe accepts and goes on an adventure that he once upon a time only dreamed of experiencing. Plus, he meets and falls for Patricia (Ryan again). The one hurdle in giving Joe a fairy tale ending is his brain cloud and his promise of leaping into that volcano.

Joe Versus The Volcano 1990 moon imageI went to see Joe Versus the Volcano when it was first released and remember how ignored it was at the time. Barely anyone went to see it and the few who did didn’t much care for it. I always thought it was an enjoyably strange unique movie and never deserved the derision it received back then.

Time has been kind to it and through the years Joe has gained a fair share of fans who have discovered it and have fallen in love with it. It doesn’t have a huge following, but a dedicated one.

I guess back in 1990 it wasn’t what audiences expected to see from Tom Hanks or wanted to. So it was quickly dismissed and lumped in as a Hanks misfire.

I’ve liked Hanks for a real long time. One of my favorite shows for a period was Bosom Buddies starring Hanks and Peter Scolari. That was back in 1980! I watched that show every week and thought both of them were so funny! I still remember scenes and jokes from it and I haven’t seen it in…how long has it been? Geez!

I was happy when he showed up in this movie about a mermaid called Splash! in 1984. It was hit for Hanks, along with Bachelor Party a few months later. He starred in misses and modest successes following those, but his career really took off with the success and his Oscar nomination from Big in 1988. Then it was the same pattern again. He starred in a grab bag of modestly successful or disappointing movies – Punchline, The ‘Burbs, The Bonfire of the Vanities. His biggest post-Big hit was Turner & Hooch.

So, at the time Joe Versus The Volcano was just kind of written off as being another disappointment from Hanks.

It’s funny thinking back on Hanks’ supporting part in A League of Their Own in 1992. It seemed like he was trying to gradually work back the momentum of success he had going with Big that had by then dissipated. Luckily, after League he began starring in a string of popular films and transitioning into more dramatic roles for the rest of the decade. By the end of the 90’s he would cement his status as ‘Tom Hanks Movie Star’, the guy everyone loves.

Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, Joe Versus The Volcano is a fairy tale of a movie. It is an odd film. It’s an exaggerated parable – the production design, the situations, the effects, the premise, every scene wants to stand out. Even its title is peculiar. It sounds like something you would find on a children’s book shelf.

It has some beautiful magical imagery in it. It’s not subtle in the overall point it’s making or the lessons to be learned, but it tells its story in a very unique way. While it’s not a perfect movie, I’ve always really enjoyed it.

As the lonely schlubby Joe heads out on his journey to the volcano, he gets a makeover with the help of limo driver Ozzie Davis. He meets Meg Ryan Number Two in the form of Angelica. She’s the daughter of Bridges and is a wannabe artist. From there Joe arrives at the yacht where Meg Ryan Number Three appears and is tasked with taking him to his final destination – the island named Waponi Woo.

Not surprisingly it’s not a smooth trip and while out at sea Joe and Patricia fall for each other. Throughout his adventure Joe learns the extraordinary gift life is and how it should be valued and not squandered.

Hanks and Ryan make a charming onscreen pair. This was their first teaming and they both embrace the unusual tone of the movie really well with their performances. They never try to oversell scenes and they play it all sincere and straight. Hanks was so great and likable in comedies. He focuses more on dramas nowadays, but he can be so damn funny! I wish he would do some more straight comedies again.

Meg Ryan in Joe Versus the Volcano 1990
Meg Ryan in her three roles

Ryan must of had a great time in this, since she gets to play three very different characters. Patricia is basically the onscreen leading lady Meg Ryan we all know. Angelica is the wealthy, materialistic, suicidal daughter of Bridges. And DeDe is Joe’s shy mousey co-worker.

Ryan looks stunning in this movie, it’s maybe the best she ever looked. What’s funny, is how good she is as DeDe. You think that Ryan couldn’t possibly be anymore adorable as just her usual onscreen persona, but the character of DeDe is so cute, sweet and endearing! I wouldn’t have minded if she stuck around longer and was given a chance to spread her wings like Joe does.

The humor ranges from broad to subtle to dry to downright silly. Some of the scenes work better than others. The exaggerated prison existence of the company Joe works for is the real standout in the movie. Anyone who feels they’re forced to work in a humdrum job will immediately identify with the plight of Joe’s life.

The credit sequence with Joe going to his dismal job with 16 Tons by Eric Burdon playing is wonderful! It’s this setting that first springs to mind when I think about with this movie. These lines of lifeless, zombie workers slowly marching to work  makes for such a memorable fairy tale beginning to the movie.

Hedaya with his repetitive lines as Joe’s miserable boss help make it an even funnier and starts things with a terrific surreal bang. It’s all so funny and interesting looking – the sets, the lighting, the accompanying music, the dreariness of Joe’s existence. I think this sequence is a big reason why I can forgive the rest of the movies shortcomings. It’s such a great fantastical opening.

Joe Versus the Volcano 1990 Tom Hanks Meg Ryan waterproof luggageJoe acquires some magical waterproof luggage that offers some amusing laughs. There’s an extended sequence of him and Patricia lost out at sea (long before Hanks would fight for survival in Castaway) that is very charming. The luggage provides him with seemingly everything he needs for such a situation – and some non-essential items.

Yes, there are some lulls along the way. One particular joke that I never liked is the fishing scene. It’s an extended gag with ‘Good Love’ playing as Hanks is fishing off the boat. Other than some of the goofy physical comedy of Hanks the punchline isn’t all that funny. I also always found Ryan’s Angelica the least enjoyable character she plays and her scenes begins to slow the movie down a bit.

The weakest part of the movie is definitely its final act. The arrival at Waponi Woo and the finale with Joe taking that leap into the volcano (which he does and I appreciated they didn’t cheap out on that) isn’t all it’s built up to be. How that’s all resolved feels pretty anticlimactic.

I suppose it’s a simple storybook way to wrap things up quickly and it keeps with the bizarre nature of the movie, but I always felt a bit letdown by it and would have liked something more satisfying before it gets to the ‘they lived happily ever after’ ending.

The gag of the natives loving orange soda isn’t all that funny either. The one high point on the island is Abe Vigoda as the pokerfaced chief. It’s not an awful final act but it feels much less special than what came before.

Rewatching it again I found it more a Terry Gilliam-esque type of film than ever. It’s such a stylized type of film that it doesn’t worry about portraying any kind of real world believability. Some of the matte backgrounds aren’t designed to look real. They look like something out of a bright painted fairy tale book.

When Hanks and Ryan are on a date and the multicolored city is behind them it invokes a mood and looks more like a water painting rather than portraying any kind of reality we know. If you’re looking for a mainstream Tom Hanks comedy you’ll probably leave Joe Versus the Volcano disappointed.

Joe Versus the Volcano crooked road symbolism
The crooked factory logo continues to appear in the film

Since it came out fans have had fun interpreting much of the imagery, motifs and symbolism that run throughout the movie. Clenched fists being opened, Joe’s choice of hats, the importance placed on clothes, the trappings of modern life, Ryan’s differing characters mirroring aspects of Joe, that crooked company logo that repeats throughout the film, recurring lines of dialogue.

On the surface it might appear to be just a silly movie about a guy jumping into a volcano. If you watch it only on that basis you’ll miss much of the depth Shanley inserts in his take of his hero’s journey. You can make a whole list of metaphors and meanings the movie contains. Just visit a Joe Versus The Volcano message board and you’ll get an idea of what hardcore fans have to say about it and how they comb through and analyze this seemingly simple film.

Joe Versus the Volcano 1990 ending Tom Hanks Meg RyanThere’s a real re-watchability to the movie. I think that’s much of the reason why Joe has gained it’s growing devoted cult fanbase. I don’t think one should watch it and view it in any kind of literal way. There’s much more in here than just watching Hanks dancing on floating luggage. Picking up on the strange symbolism sprinkled in it might not salvage the weaker parts of the movie, but it should make one respect it much more.

I can see why some wouldn’t like the movie and dismiss it as a silly, frivolous comedy. Despite it’s universal message it’s not for everyone. It is quite an absurd journey that some will simply not go along with.

At times it can get a bit heavy handed with its sentimentality, not all the comedy works and that island finale isn’t all it should be. People could easily peg it as a wacky live-action cartoon that just isn’t for them.

But when the parts do hit their mark the movie really scores. Fans of it often call Joe Versus the Volcano an underrated gem. I very much agree with that. It’s a movie I find very difficult not to be enamored by.  I always thought it got unfairly criticized as a terrible movie and never understood why it wasn’t more appreciated.

I didn’t mention the luscious score by Georges Delerue that is fantastic! It compliments the movie so well. I hear some of the tracks today and honestly will get that goosebumpy feeling from it.

Tom Hanks Meg Ryan Joe Versus the Volcano 1990 comedy fantasy

Theres’s some great supporting parts by Bridges, Stack, Hedaya, Vigoda and Davis as one of the most likable limo drivers around. Hanks and Ryan are perfect in their roles. It is a peculiar tale, but it’s life affirming message and the captivating way in which it’s told – it all just wins me over.

It always leaves me feeling good after I see it. Joe’s journey always manages to get me thinking and dreaming afterwards. I think that’s exactly what Shanely wanted to achieve.

Just recently Joe Versus the Volcano made its way to Blu-Ray. I predict it to find even more fans who will discover it and be won over by this offbeat tale of a man’s journey to step into a volcano.



The opening to Joe Versus the Volcano – I love it!

1 thought on “Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) – A Review

  1. I remember when I first saw this at the theater. In fact, I remember the chuckles the begining job sequence illicited. For those in the know, that award for a certain “artifical” member got a lot of laughs (go see the movie).

    When I saw it, the theater did have people but it wasn’t filled to capacity. I wasn’t jaded to films yet. So I was able to let it in. And I had a good time.

    That being said, I haven’t seen the film since.

    But I have to say, your review did get me thinking. Like I DIDN’T know that Meg Ryan was in it three times. I was fooled. Too young, I suppose. I’m surprised they did that. That trick is usually researved for people how have dream sequences. Was Meg’s characters, figments of his imagination?

    I also think you have a point about how the Hank’s character didn’t chicken out and followed through. They DO usually do that in films like this. The character always finds a way out. Kind of refreshing they didn’t do that here.

    I also think you answered your own question as to why this film is not held in high regard. Movies needs three things, Three good scenes, No Bad ones, and a last 15 minutes that are dynamite. The fact the ending is so weak proabably sunk this film with critics.

    Maybe I should look into this film again. Thanks for the review.

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