9. Joe vs. the Volcano
This is another one of those movies that I can’t be objective about. I can’t ever stand back from it. It’s silly at times, it’s tremendously moving at times, the “special effects” at the end with the volcano and the South Sea island are ridiculous … but that adds to the charm – no, bad word. Not charm. The magic. This movie for me is not just good. It is magic.
So few movies are magic.
John Patrick Shanley has magic in him. There is a rough poetry to his language, in his plays and screenplays, a willingness to open up the heart to the rawness of our need for one another (think of the wonderful scene between Olympia Dukakis and John Mahoney in the restaurant in Moonstruck – Shanley’s entire body of work could be summed up in that one scene alone.) Read this post here - for my favorite essay of Shanley’s. The first time I read it, it was like it just burned a hole into me. It was that powerful. It makes you want to stand up taller … and, in the words of a great movie hero – get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’. That is what Shanley is all about.
Shanley wrote and directed this film. I know I am not alone in adoring it. It’s not just that people think it’s a “good movie”, which still has a sort of distance to the response. People love it.
Listen to the first paragraph of Roger Ebert’s original review of it:
Gradually through during the opening scenes of “Joe Versus the Volcano,” my heart begin to quicken, until finally I realized a wondrous thing: 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.”
Ebert has this to say about the writing:
The characters in this movie speak as if they would like to say things that had not been said before, in words that had never been used in quite the same way.
A beautiful example, for me, is when Patricia (the third role Meg Ryan plays in this film, at her most delightful!!)and Joe are out on the yacht on their way to the South Pacific. They did not get off on the right foot. She was rude to him. He is baffled as to why. He is lying in his bed on the yacht, and she comes to the door, asks if he needs anything. She starts to leave, and then stops … comes back in the room … and she says:
“I’ve always kept clear of my father’s stuff ever since I got out on my own. And now he’s pulling me back in. He knew I wanted this boat and he used it and he got me working for him, which I swore I would never do. I feel ashamed because I had a price. He named it and now I know that about myself. And I could treat you like I did back out on the dock, but that would be me kicking myself for selling out, which isn’t fair to you. Doesn’t make me feel any better. I don’t know what your situation is but I wanted you to know that mine is not just to explain some rude behavior, but because we’re on a little boat for a while and… I’m soul sick. And you’re going to see that.”
That is all Shanley magic right there. I would recognize his language in a dark alley.
But watch Meg Ryan deliver this monologue. Look at the look in her eyes when she says “now I know that about myself”. And look at her expression when she says “soul sick”. It’s not a big histrionic moment. It’s quiet, simple, and true.
Shanley talks to the loneliest part of us, the part that yearns for love, for connection, the part of us that notices a teeny daisy struggling to survive through the cracks in the pavement and in our “soul sick” states, we find a chastened and faint hope when we see that daisy. Maybe things will be okay? And not specifically, not like: “I want to get married, get a raise, buy a house” … No, by “things will be okay” Shanley is always talking on a soul level.
People have scoffed at him for that. The word “sentimental” is bandied about. First of all, you have to be the kind of person who thinks “sentimentality” is a bad thing. People scoff at Truman Capote’s earlier books as “sentimental”. Who could ever read The Grass Harp and come up with “sentimental” seriously has something missing from their heart, in my opinion. Now yes, there is a danger with this kind of Joe vs. the Volcano material. It could be so schlocky that the audience would gag on their own tongues. But it’s not. For me, the key is in the genius opening of the film, the unbelievable world created in those opening shots: the factory, the zig zag, the slowness of the people walking, and Tom Hanks’ acting … I haven’t been a fan of Tom Hanks for a while now, ever since he decided to “Embody the American Dream” in all of his parts. I miss his real-ness. I forget how good he really is. I’ve been into him since Bosom Buddies, I’m no fair-weather fan!!
His acting in this film, in particular, is some of his best work.
Watch the scene where he’s on the raft in the middle of the night and he basically falls into the moon. Or, his soul does. It’s all done in a close-up, which is what is so extraordinary about it. He’s staring at the enormous moon – he’s sunburnt, with chapped lips. Joe stares and stares into the moon and then says (with no tears, nothing outward, but with emotion so strong that it burns): “Dear God, whose name I do not know – thank you for my life. I forgot how BIG… thank you. Thank you for my life.”
Watch Tom Hanks’ ACTING here. It’s so unselfconscious and has ZERO self-importance. It’s not a big “actor’s moment”, it’s not “oooh, here is my big Serious Actor closeup”. I think all Tom Hanks does now is go from one big “actor moment” to the next and I miss the simplicity, the humanity. Directors push him in the big Serious Actor direction because he’s such a giant star now. But he wasn’t a giant star yet in Joe vs. the Volcano and there is something so refreshingly open and RAW about his acting. The perfect Shanley hero.
Any movie that puts Abe Vigoda in the dress of a Polynesian chief, complete with war paint, so that he looks like the Bronx version of a statue on Easter Island is okay by me!
Here’s how Ebert ends his review:
What’s strongest about the movie is that it does possess a philosophy, an idea about life. The idea is the same idea contained in “Moonstruck”: that at night, in those corners of our minds we deny by day, magical things can happen in the moon shadows. And if they can’t, a) they should, and b) we should always in any event act as if they can.
If I am ever soul sick, (and I am often soul sick), I watch this movie. It helps. It really does.