Under-Rated Movies #9: Joe Vs. The Volcano (1990); Dir. John Patrick Shanley

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.

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25 Responses to Under-Rated Movies #9: Joe Vs. The Volcano (1990); Dir. John Patrick Shanley

  1. Cullen says:

    I love this movie. It’s one of those that I will go out of my way to watch whenever I realize it’s on TV, but I can never seem to remember when talking about movies I love.

    Probably the first film that I fell in love with Meg Ryan.

    Great pick Sheila.

  2. red says:

    “I’m an advertising executive for a medical research company.”
    “I have no response to that.”


    I love this movie!! That great glimmery shot when all of the steamer trunks come popping up out of the water? Love it!

  3. red says:

    It’s no Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis – but then again, what is?


  4. Cullen says:

    Well, not every movie can feature dirt bikes and kung fu zombies. I mean, it would be pretty freakin’ awesome if they did, but then it would probably get all Hollywood or something.

    I’d never want to see Tom Cruise kung fu fight a zombie Philip Seymour Hoffman while on dirt bikes. Well, in a movie anyway.

  5. MikeR says:

    I haven’t seen it since its original theatrical release, but thinking about it brings back the same warm flood of positive feelings you describe. Guess I need to get my hands on a DVD…

    Great job, Sheila.

  6. red says:

    MikeR – do you have HBO? It’s in HBO Movies on Demand right now.

  7. dorkafork says:

    Would you like to hear my poem?
    (Reads poem)
    Would you like to hear it again?
    (Reads same poem again)

  8. Alex says:

    I thought I was the only one in the world that loved this movie.

    I love, love, LOVE this movie!!!!!

    I like Ryan’s work most of the time (Harry Met Sally is pure magic for me), but I feel she was absolutely robbed of an Oscar nomination for this role. It’s fantastic.

    She’s so specific, and so completely free and unhibited. I think it’s marvelous work.

    The movie itself is so gargantuan in it’s effort, I have a feeling it just went over people’s heads.

    Beautiful pick Sheila.

    I’m now watching Saw 2. I’m an ass.

  9. I too love this movie (despite my hatred of Tom Hanks). Actually, this movie came out back when I still dug Hanks, but that’s a whole other story. I was shocked after having seen it that it got bad reviews when it originally opened. It was fresh and original and hello, Abe Vigoda! What more do you need?

  10. Erik says:

    This makes me so happy, Sheila. Just READING ABOUT this movie makes me happy. I remember the first time I saw it, for some reason I didn’t get it. I don’t know what it was. I must have been in a really weird mood or something. And then a couple of years later, a friend rented it and I was like, “ug, why?” And then we watched it and I could not stop laughing and crying. It’s so good.

    I agree with the all of the comments about Tom Hanks being way too self-important for the last however-many years. Since Castaway at the very least–I think that spending a year losing weight and growing a beard for a role did some damage to his brain or something–but you can feel that in everything he does now: “I once grew a beard and lost 100 pounds for a role! That’s how committed I am to my craft!” But back when Tom Hanks used to be funny, he used to be so heartbreaking too.

    And I think this movie is one of the most heartbreaking. It just makes you want to go out and live.

    Thank you for this review. I’ve been feeling kinda soul sick lately. I think I’m gonna go rent Joe Vs. the Volcano. Thanks.

  11. Scotter says:

    And the other GREAT Tom Hanks role from that era—-Turner and Hooch. Seriously. He was just so frickin’ light and buoyant and free that it really elevated a programmer of a movie. I miss that guy.

  12. red says:

    I adore Turner and Hooch – I totally agree.

  13. i cheered for the volcano….

    Trivia://….know that “checkered, yellow cab” that was used in the movie in a scene that was shot in the hawaiian islands. It was a publicity-like car actually owned by one of hawaii’s legislators. Rare thing in the islands. Then seeing the car in the movie.

  14. kevin says:

    Sixteen tons and whatta you get – another day older and deeper in debt. I like the movie but don’t love it. The opening scene is magical, I felt that way going to work, I was just out of college and work was so pointless, the sheer mind numbing drudgery of work. They never tell you that working for a living sucks. I love those steamer trunks. If I ever go on a cruise (doubtful – boats do sink) I am bringing those trunks)

    And yes Meg Ryan should have been nominated for WHen Harry Met Sally and Steve Martin should have won for Roxanne (Just one of the best movies ever) but life is not fair)

  15. Steve Ely says:

    I like most of the movie OK. But part of it I love as much as I love anything in any movie. From the opening sequence up through the visit from Patricia’s father, it’s all just genius. Meg Ryan as DeDe, full of wonderment as Joe’s new attitude? Much more enjoyable to me than Ryan as Patricia. Dan Hedaya, in his bizarrely ongoing phone argument? Brrrrrrilliant. “I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?” Just the bleakness of Joe’s hypochondriac life under those zombie lights that suck the juice out of his eyeballs and the contrast of that dismal despair with the brain-cloud-induced freedom. Wow, it’s great.

    For me, Patricia’s most important contribution is, “You mean you were diagnosed with something called a brain cloud and didn’t ask for a second opinion?”

  16. Carrie says:

    This is one of my favorite movies, so glad you mentioned it, thought I was the only one who loved it. It is terrific.

    On another note, did you ever write about the movie Housekeeping?

  17. red says:

    Carrie – where the heck have you been? Like your blog says: “thinking”???

    No, just kidding – glad to see you again.

    I haven’t written about Housekeeping – I actually only saw it once – and it was enough to make me a Christine Lahti fan forever. But I honestly can’t remember much of the film – I should check it out again, you think?

  18. Carrie says:

    Did the same for me, too, made me a fan of Lahti, and the book is terrific.

    Just turned on Jay Leno here and who is the guest but Tom Hanks, I had to laugh.

    Anyway me, just been thinking, doing a lot of stuff, can’t believe we’re coming up to the wee man’s 1st bday.

  19. red says:

    Ohhhh … please give my best to your family!!

  20. Carrie says:

    My daughter was asking about you two yesterday, forget how it came up but she was wondering how ‘Alice’ and yourself were, she called you Andrea and I said you mean the woman who stayed in your room and she says yes, I said that was Sheila, not Andrea and she was delighted, ‘Sheila slept in my bed when is she coming back, we can have a sleep over.’ I don’t know what put you in her head, but you made an impression.

    Speaking of which, Dessie the cab driver still asks after you guys too, whenver he comes up. He got a new car, a Volvo, much nicer than the jalopy we all piled in – still smokes like a chimney though!

  21. red says:

    We are remembered in Belfast!!!! I love Dessie – he was a riot.

    I will definitely tell “Alice” that we were discussed. Didn’t she refer to us maybe a day after we took off as “the Americans”? “When are the Americans coming back?”

    so cute!

  22. red says:

    I absolutely loved that I was sleeping on Dora the Explorer sheets in Belfast. It was such an honor!

  23. Carrie says:

    One day she’ll be saying, ‘Yeah, Sheila O’Malley, she slept on my Dora sheets…I knew her when.’ ;-)

  24. Carl V. says:

    I’m with you all the way on this one. I love Meg Ryan and she looks like she has so much fun in this film playing the various roles. And I too love every minute of this film. It is indeed very underrated and one of my treasured films.

  25. Joe V and Big Ben

    I recorded Joe Versus The Volcano a few weeks ago. Patsy and I decided to watch it last night. I saw this movie many years ago and hardly remembered a thing about it. I remembered Meg Ryan played three roles, Joe’s $300-a-week speech to his boss that e…