Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Joe vs. the Volcano


When you win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, as John Patrick Shanley did for Moonstruck, you can pretty much write your own ticket for your next film, even if you want to write and direct. Just ask Michael Cimino. He won for The Deer Hunter, and then made Heaven’s Gate. And when your picture is as big a disaster as that one was, it can be quite a few years before anyone wants to make another picture with you.

This movie was not a disaster on that scale, but it was a disappointment at the B.O. It was produced by Steven Spielberg. Shanley didn’t direct another film until Doubt, in 2008. He wrote some things during that long dry stretch, but nothing to amount to anything.

I happen to love this film, but the reaction was mixed. If you can’t take it as a crazy little fable, you won’t care for it. But the opening few minutes are the most amazing depiction of a hell on Earth I think I’ve ever seen. Every element of the place where Joe works is calculated to make him want to go home and slit his wrists. The factory makes the marching proles in Metropolis look like a day at Club Med. They advertise themselves as “The Home of the Rectal Probe.” The office he works in … Oh. My. God. The overhead fixtures sizzle and blink, and the Boss (Dan Hedaya) spends all day on the phone repeating “I’m not arguing that with you. I’m not arguing that with you.” over and over. I wanted to staple his tongue to his feet. If there has ever been a poor dumb slob willing to undertake a quixotic journey just to get the fuck out of there Joe Banks is at the top of the list. When he is told that he is dying of a “brain cloud” by a doctor (played very well by Robert Stack) and then is approached by a manic super-rich man (Lloyd Bridges, also very good) to throw himself into a volcano to appease the Great God of the isle of Waponi Woo, he says, “Okay.”

He goes shopping for clothes and luggage with another wonderful actor, Ossie Davis. He boards the rich man’s yacht with Meg Ryan. (This is one of three parts, all radically different, that she plays to perfection.) The yacht sinks and they wash up on the shores of the island. Then it comes time to jump into the volcano, since the Waponi have failed to produce a hero to do it. The chief there is hilariously played by a deadpan Abe Vigoda. To me, all the casting of this movie is perfect. The screenplay is hilarious. I just love everything about it. But if you can’t handle a volcano spitting out Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, unharmed … this isn’t the movie for you.