Motion/Captured Must-See: 'Joe Versus The Volcano'
A surreal romance whose cult grows more every year
I fell in love with this movie the first time I saw it. The Plitt 4 in Brandon, Florida. And there were two other people in the theater. One of the last films I saw there before leaving Tampa and moving to Los Angeles. I wasn't really connected to "the business" at all, but I knew that the film was considered a bomb. I wanted to see the movie because I liked Tom Hanks, I liked "Moonstruck," I liked Meg Ryan, and I liked the clip I saw on David Letterman. It had been out for four days, and my buddy who still worked at the Plitt called me. "We're getting rid of it on Thursday," he said. "If you wanna see it, come see it before then." So the next afternoon, I did, and I thought it was great. It hit me the same way "Raising Arizona" did. It felt like great entertainment with a huge exposed heart and a sense of style. It felt like the sort of thing I wished everyone was trying to do. It felt like someone having fun, aiming high. It was dizzy, silly, drunk romantic, and it was also unexpectedly profound. The things it had to say... the real things, underneath all the talk of brain clouds and orange soda... were important. Heartfelt. Direct.
"Joe Vs The Volcano" is a great film. It's not a guilty pleasure. It's not a film I think is okay. It is one of the titles I am most enthusiastic about on the list so far. It is a fable, an extended metaphor. It is about life, in toto, and about death. It's got a lot on its mind, but it is very concise about expressing it. "Joe" covers a lot of ground. That's one of the things that I find most interesting about the film... the stages that Joe passes through. He goes from spirit guide to spirit guide, learning what he needs to know, preparing himself so that when he meets the right person... when he finally finds his Karma Girl... he's ready. He can make the leap. He can be open to her, to love, to life, to fate. From crumpled office zombie to man in love. A crooked road. Eventual nirvana. Shanley's vision of adventure is beautiful, and there's a touch of magic from the very start.
[more after the jump]
We hear an orchestra, tuning up, getting ready to play something, just settling in. Someone clears their throat, and there's a moment of anticipatory silence... then a very soft lullaby, and two title cards:
"Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe"
"who had a very lousy job..."
And then the muddy parking lot of Joe's workplace, and the sound of "16 Tons," and that first awful ominous matte painting of American Panascope, and our first look at the company logo, that lightning bolt pattern that's going to show up throughout the film. It's just Joe (Tom Hanks) walking in to work, but it's presented as a sort of nightmare, as Joe walks that lightning bolt and the soundtrack howls "I owe my soul to the company store" with a convincing fervor. From that opening sequence alone, I knew that Shanley had a game plan. A voice. Whatever the film is, he meant it to be that. This is not a timid debut, a playwright tentatively dipping his toe into the movies. This is a movie movie. A stylized alternate reality, where everything's heightened for emotional effect.
Dan Hedaya. The great Dan Hedaya. "I know he can get the job, Harry, but can he DO the job? I'm not arguing that with you. I'm not arguing that with you, Harry. Yeah, but can he DO the job?" He's maddening, and familiar, and perfectly cast.
The lighting in Joe's office is disgusting. It's great, but it's disgusting.
Dee Dee. The first of the Karma Girls. A scared little mouse. Very pretty, but always keeping one eye on the door and ready to run. She wants to like Joe because he's the best available choice.
Joe getting tortured by Mr. Waturi. All body language. Hedaya treats him like a child, and there's nothing subtle about it. And Hanks totally responds. Joe is spineless. Cowed.
And when he goes to the doctor, we learn that he used to be another man. He used to be a fireman. He just quit one day, and ever since then, he hasn't felt good. I love how he's told about the brain cloud and I love how he just accepts it. It's a wonderful scene between Hanks and Robert Stack, of all people. It's right about here that Hanks starts to really pay off. This is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of work he's ever done on the whole. His transformation as he moves from crumpled victim to dying man to adventurer to final acceptance is a thing of beauty. He's funny, but there's so much sadness and loneliness underneath that it's almost hard to watch. When he staggers out of the office after being told about his brain cloud, and he stops to pet a dog, and he ends up hugging the dog, then hugging the owner, it's a funny moment, but it's also just so naked and needy and sad... and I think that's something Hanks does better than anyone else working. He's the closest thing we have to Chaplin, a man who can make pathos work without ever tipping into pathetic.
His tell-off to Mr. Waturi is epic. I love the start of his freak out, when he opens (or closes) the main drain and nothing happens. I think the gesture is the perfect summation of the little soul-deaths that people experience when they work in a box for decades, doing the same thing all day every day. His meltdown is absolutely vintage Hanks. When he takes Dee Dee out, as he starts to wake up, he's really appealing. But it's like he's got the volume up too loud, and it's little wonder he freaks Dee Dee out. She's not ready for him, or anything like him. She wishes she were ready, and she can see how intense it must be, but she's scared, too. She's got to be the first Karma Girl. She's the life that Joe is leaving behind. She's all the things he has to get rid of, all that timid fear, all the cringing, all the ways he ever talked himself out of things.
Lloyd Bridges plays completely barking mad in a way I find endlessly funny. There's just something about his eyes when there's no one home behind them that entertains me mightily, and he hits the ground running in his one scene as Greynamore, the billionaire who approaches Joe with a unique proposition: since he's dying already, would he mind jumping into a volcano as a human sacrifice while he's at it? The deadpan throwaway shrug with which Joe says yes is one of the film's funniest moments, and it launches Joe into a journey to not only make that fateful jump, but also to find his perfect Karma Girl, even if he doesn't realize that's what he's doing.
Ossie Davis. Perfection. Just the man for the moment, able to steer Joe right in his hour of need. He's a limo driver who takes Joe on a shopping spree before his trip to the South Seas island where the volcano is located. Barry McGovern, an acclaimed Irish stage actor, is equally perfect as a luggage salesman who has a memorable encounter with Joe, selling him a set of the greatest travel trunks in history. And then there's Angelica Greynamore (Meg Ryan again), a gorgeous femme fatale version of Ryan, all vamp and flash. She's a self-described "flibbertigibbet" who Joe is attracted to, but who broadcasts this rancid crazy energy at microwave-intensity. She's damaged goods, and Joe's time with her is an underlining of everything he doesn't want in a woman. Without it, though, he might not appreciate Patricia Greynamore (Meg Ryan for the third time), Angelica's sister, who is also the captain of the boat that's taking him to the island where he's supposed to jump. Patricia is everything Angelica is not... centered and relaxed and self-possessed and smart. She wants no part of Joe at first, and she's angry to be dealing with him, because in some small way, that means she's dealing with her father.
The rest of Joe's journey is peppered with equally beautiful moments of whimsy and meaning and heartbreak, and Shanley's not afraid to go for some big visual flourishes (check out the way all the ship's rigging turns to hearts for a second during the rainstorm kiss) to underscore the poetry of his script. I love the ambition of the film. I love the way it talks about finding the person we are supposed to be with, the process as Shanley lays it out. I think the film is romantic in realistic ways, celebrating the difficulty and the pain and the struggle instead of downplaying it for storybook bullshit. And even if the film doesn't quite tie everything up perfectly at the end (the big gesture's sort of a bust, like the film ran out of time and money at the last moment), so much of this ambitious film is so good that I have to put this on my list of movies that everyone has to try for themselves.
And don't forget... if you're in Los Angeles and you haven't seen this movie, you can join us on April 1st or 2nd at the New Beverly Cinema in Hollywood for Cinema Rehab Night, presented by Ain't It Cool and HitFix, where we'll be screening "Ishtar" and "Joe Versus The Volcano," hosted by Mr. Beaks and myself. It all stars at 7:30 on each night, and we'd love to see you down there.
If you'd like to watch along with me for the rest of the week, you can expect reviews for the following films: "Koyaanisqatsi," "Love and Death," "M.," and "Night Moves."
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