Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Joe Versus the Volcano


This is one of those divisive films. By and large, you either love it or hate it. I’m one who loves it, madly. It was written and directed by John Patrick Shanley (the only film has he directed, as this one flopped), best known for Moonstruck and the recent Doubt. It is a fable that requires you to suspend your disbelief, as many things happen—mostly toward the end—that are clearly impossible.

Joe works in the most soulless environment I’ve ever seen put on film. This factory makes the downtrodden workers in Metropolis look like a week at Club Med. We see them shuffling to work to the tune of Eric Burdon singing “Sixteen Tons.” The factory is the “Home of the Anal Probe.” He works in an office with flickering fluorescent lights that would drive me insane in ten seconds. His boss, Dan Hedaya, is always on the phone, saying the same things over and over: “I know he can get the job, but can he do the job? No I didn’t. No I didn’t. No I didn’t. No I didn’t. I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?” Already you’re ready to kill him, right? His job could be done by a tape loop. On his desk is a prototype model of “artificial testicles.” This is all just brilliantly done.

Not surprisingly, Joe is depressed, and always feels bad. Then a doctor tells him he’s dying of something called a “brain cloud.” He’ll feel fine for about three months, and then he’ll keel over dead. He suggests a change in lifestyle. Next day an eccentric billionaire (Lloyd Bridges, very funny) shows up at his door with a proposition. The island of Waponi-woo (means little island with a big volcano) have the world’s only supply of something needed to make superconductors. Trouble is, they believe that every hundred years somebody must willingly jump into the volcano, or it will blow up. He wants Joe to jump, so he can buy the rare element. He gives Joe four platinum credit cards and tells him to knock himself out buying stuff, then get on a yacht, sail to Waponi-woo, and throw himself into the volcano. Everything first class, all the way.

Joe says okay. Well, wouldn’t you? Would you rather sit in your shitty apartment and wait to die?

On the way to the island, the yacht sinks, but Joe and the billionaire’s daughter make it to shore, and eventually jump into the volcano. But the volcano spits them out and the island sinks, because the volcano god was pissed that none of the Waponi had the guts to jump in. Joe finds out he’s not dying (the doctor had been bought off by the billionaire, to make Joe amenable to the offer). And Joe and the daughter drift off in the moonlight, counting on their amazing good luck to see them through.

It’s all about grabbing at any chance life throws at you, even if it seems a bit bizarre. Or would you rather spend your life writing advertising copy about anal probes and artificial testicles?

The pleasures of this movie are the clever writing, the music, and the acting in a host of small parts. Ossie Davis is particularly great as the limo driver who teaches Joe to shop for fine clothes. The luggage salesman (“Luggage is the principle preoccupation of my life”) sells him four super-deluxe trunks that save his life when the boat sinks, and when the island blows up. Tom Hanks is good as usual. But the best is Meg Ryan, who plays three totally different parts superbly.

I looked at the message boards at the IMDb to see what people didn’t like about the film. Some of the complaints were perfectly valid, and then some just made me think … who the hell are these people? I’m speaking of the ones who complained that a volcano can’t spit people out alive, and even if it did, they fell from such a great height that the impact would have killed them. Well, duuuuuh. In your next posting, please tell me all about how a girl can’t survive a fall down a rabbit hole (even if she could get into it!), nor get very small or very large by eating bits of cake. As for surviving being dropped—in your house, which couldn’t possibly hold together!—by a tornado into a land of little people singing about some fucking yellow brick road … well, how dumb do they think I am?

Even sillier, somebody complained of the crass insensitivity displayed by Joe and the daughter when the island of Waponi-woo was destroyed, killing thousands of natives. My god, they should have been horrified! Again, some people seem doomed to take everything literally. It’s a joke, dude! It’s a fable. These people were descendants of Hebrews and four other ethnic groups who were blown off course 1000 years ago. One of their chants was Hava Nagila! They are wild about orange soda, they decorate everything with the empty cans. Yet another idiot complained that nobody cared about these third world people because they were … I dunno. People of color? Their chief was Abe Vigoda! Their main shaman was Nathan Lane! Just what color is that? I guess things have to be clearly labeled up front—This is a fable, idiot!—for people to understand.