Synopsis: When a hypochondriac learns that he is dying, he accepts an offer to throw himself in a volcano at a tropical island, and along the way there, learns to truly live.
Stars: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Dan Hedaya, Amanda Plummer, Ossie Davis, Abe Vigoda
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: Though Joe Versus the Volcano failed to ignite much spark with the box office or critics when it was initially released in 1990 the film has gained a nice following over the years who can appreciate the film and its oddball charm. Before Tom Hanks (Splash, Cloud Atlas) and Meg Ryan hit it big with their second and third collaborations (Sleepless in Seattle in 1993 and You’ve Got Mail in 1998) they headlined this quirky comedy that played to both of their strengths.
Set up in the guise of a fairytale, the film opens with average Joe slumping through his dead end (literally) job and keeping to himself as he goes through the paces. A hypochondriac, Joe’s visit to a doctor (delightfully played by deadpan Robert Stack) and subsequent terminal diagnosis will set him on a life changing mission that will take him into the middle of the ocean to a mysterious island. Along the way he meets a kooky set of characters that will play a part in Joe learning lessons on living life to the fullest.
Hanks is pretty appealing as a pale sad sack that gradually looses/livens up. You can see the color returning to his cheeks as he frees himself of his dreaded job, tells off the boss, romances a co-worker, and sets sail for adventure. Demonstrating the same charm that would prove so valuable in later movies with Ryan, he’s affable and relatable.
An actress also just coming into her own at the time, Ryan deftly handles playing three roles (four, actually, for those eagle eared viewers) of women that Hanks meets on his journey. The first is his mousy co-worker that loves him but can’t deal with his impending demise, the second is a flighty LA-type that’s not as shallow as she presents herself to be, and finally she’s the fiercely independent woman Joe’s meant to be with…if he didn’t have to jump into a volcano in a few days.
Good support is also to be had in Ossie Davis as a limo driver that shows Joe the finer ways of style as he prepares for his one-way trip, Dan Hedaya as Joe’s comically droll boss, and Lloyd Bridges as the man with the plan that coerces Joe to take a leap of faith. It’s a well-cast affair and they all make material that could have gone awry work exceedingly well.
First time director John Patrick Shanley already had his Oscar for another modern day fairytale (Moonstruck) and his direction is done with the same light touch that’s applied to his script. There’s a swell production design from Bo Welch, incorporating familiar points of interest from each stage of Joe’s journey. The music by Georges Delerue is typically gorgeous…even if it’s essentially the exact same score he produced for Steel Magnolias a year before.
It’s easy to see why audiences and critics in 1990 turned their noses at the film which was probably a little ahead of its time. It’s absolutely an offbeat romantic adventure that is catered to a specific group of viewers. Those that are willing to take the journey and can let themselves be taken away by Shanley’s script and two strong lead performances will be rewarded greatly.