Joe Versus the Volcano is not a horror movie. I wanted to get that out of the way right off, to prevent both of my readers from bumping it to the top of the Netflix queue and being confused when it wasn’t about a giant robot man fighting an ambulatory volcano. I said way back when I started that I would mostly do horror, but I reserved the right to occasionally recommend a film in which no one was chopped into screaming bits and fed to a bizarrely phallic monster. This is one of the few romantic comedies I genuinely love, one of those that makes me reflect on the wonder of the world, my place in it, and the deep bond I have with my wife. Yes, readers, I too have a gooey center. Just like a human centipede.
A very close friend of mine used to use Joe Versus the Volcano as a friendship yardstick. If you liked the movie, you were in. If not, you were probably a waste of time. On the surface this sounds insane, yet it has never failed him once. It’s an obscure enough movie that the most common reaction is a blank stare. Those who have only heard of it lump it in with the other Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan collaborations which is like assuming that pothole on Arroyo is the same as the Mariana Trench because they’re both holes in the ground. We’re talking about a minor difference in depth here.
The film opens with some old Hollywood cursive: “Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe who had a very lousy job…” We’re not watching reality, but rather a fairy tale that becomes more real for the truths it guilelessly reveals. So when the movie tells us that Joe (Hanks) has a lousy job, they aren’t fucking around. He works at American Panascope, a company adorned with signs that proudly advertise “the home of the rectal probe!” Yes, he works in a metaphorical butthole. He goes into his terrifying Burtonesque workplace by trudging along a gray dirt path pockmarked with greasy puddles and sections of smoking earth. Inside is no better: there are Saw movies that are more welcoming. Joe’s workplace is a crushing limbo without access to things like hope and love. There is only the flickering green glow of the fluorescents and the monotonous screaming of his incompetent boss. As he says to coworker DeDe (Ryan) in response to a question about his damaged shoe: “I’m losing my sole.”
Death would be a welcoming release. Even if hell were real, at least that would provide some conversation and natural light. In perhaps a subconscious affirmation of this, Joe suffers from a host of imaginary sicknesses, although from his environs, I’d believe anything from leukemia to rickets. A doctor (played with appropriate gravity by Robert Stack) diagnoses him with something called a brain cloud. There are no symptoms but Joe will be dead in six months. As he puts it, “So I’m not sick? Other than this terminal disease?” Joe returns, and like his spiritual children Peter Gibbons and Tyler Durden quits his job with a thunderous speech about the soul-sucking monotony of lower middle class drudgery.
Fortunately for Joe, a purpose in life arrives in the form of the film’s second Airplane! star, Lloyd Bridges. He has a rather… unique problem. He owns a company that manufactures superconductors, and he needs a specific and rare mineral. The largest deposit is on the tiny South Seas island of Waponi Wu, an odd place settled by a mixture of Romans, Jews, Celts and Polynesians. The Waponis are worried that their volcano, the Big Wu, will erupt soon unless a man jumps in of his own free will. Bridges will provide the martyr and the Waponis will hand over the mining rights.
The first thing that anyone writing or talking about the movie will mention is that Meg Ryan plays three roles. It’s easy to forget, what with the scandals and her increasingly terrifying appearance, but there was a time when Ryan had an appealing screen presence. She was never the most versatile actress, but at her best she had a disarming appeal. Two of her performances in Joe capture this and the other is annoyingly mannered, but that seems intentional. In all three, her vulnerability shines through. She is one woman in three bodies, disappointed in herself and in life. As her final incarnation Patricia succinctly puts it, she’s soul-sick. Each one represents the phase of life Joe is in when he meets her. DeDe is the mousy wage-slave, Angelica is the directionless hedonist and Patricia is the wounded seeker. As he moves on from one to the other, both woman and phase of existence, Joe throws away his hat. We have to meet our true love hatless. I firmly believe this.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. With Joe, everything works on several different levels. Joe kicks off his quest with a shopping spree to acquire a new wardrobe. It’s important to look one’s best while taking a header into magma. Just ask Gollum. Joe solicits the advice of his chauffeur for the day, Ossie Davis. I’ve gone on record about my intense and slightly creepy love for Davis, but he is magnificent in his brief screen time. Taking a nakedly materialistic monologue and turning it into an inspiring soliloquy isn’t something for a lesser actor. He explains that clothes make the man, and if Joe doesn’t know what sort of clothes he wants, he’s asking Davis who he is. It’s one of the ways Joe seeks meaning and it’s telling that he gets a tailored Armani tux because of it. This is a garment most suited for a wedding, something that both men joke about, but it is a subtle hint that Joe is ready to find love.
Joe Versus the Volcano is a master class in the art of foreshadowing. A lamp he keeps at work, representing the tiny piece of his soul that he clings to, outlines Joe’s journey on the lampshade. It displays the yacht that takes him to Waponi Wu (the yacht’s name is the Tweedle Dee, a perfect moniker for a doppelganger’s vessel), the huge full moon he sees after his shipwreck, and finally the island. As he and his fellow employees walk into their factory, it appears they are wandering into the mouth of a demon, a face later echoed in the ceremonial mask meant to represent the hungry god in the Big Wu. On his ill-fated date with DeDe, a volcano billboard appears on the side of the restaurant. As he quits, he takes his possessions, including three books that broadcast what sort of movie we’re watching: Robinson Crusoe, Romeo & Juliet, and The Odyssey.
In a film rife with repeated images, Joe explains the most important to Patricia right as he is about to jump into the Big Wu: “It’s been a long time coming here to meet you. A long time on a crooked road.” The crooked road appears first as the path into Joe’s horrible factory, then as the company logo, then as plaster damage in his apartment, then as the lightning bolt that sinks the Tweedle Dee and finally as the path up the volcano. In each case, the crooked road seems to lead to ruin, but what looks like certain death can in fact be a metamorphosis. It is only through risk that one can truly be alive. Patricia maintains that life is a series of leaps of faith, and she’s right. We don’t know what will happen when we make any decision. Life is a crooked road that ends in a blind jump into peril.
Sounds depressing, right? Well, like I said, the crooked road only seems to lead to ruin. It is the act of risk that is important, that allows one to see life for the wonder it is. Patricia says that only a few people are awake and they live in a constant state of total amazement. These are the people that take the jump into the Big Wu and this is the thesis of the film. Maybe you can’t live your life in a constant state of total amazement (and if you could, that would get irritating to pretty much everyone around you), but isolated moments are within reach. In my own life I’ve captured this state on several occasions, and much of life, the meaning of it, is about these exquisite moments of time.
Next week I’ll get back to the dick jokes. I promise.
I’m sure this will horrify you, but my college Bible study group watched this movie as a metaphor for a Christian journey. :)
We always interpret art through a personal lens. I could see how Christians might interpret Joe this way, seeing as how it is an overtly theist film.
However, two things keep me from comfortably declaring this a Christian film. First, the existence and power of the Big Wu (as echoed in the factory), names this as a polytheistic world. Unless you declare that the Big Wu was the Devil or a devil, in which case you run up against the inherent illogic of the idea behind the Devil.
Secondly, in Joe’s thankful prayer on the raft, he says, “Dear God, whose name I do not know,” which is an important line. It could be interpreted as the Judeo-Christian god certainly, but it could just as easily be any number of other deities, from Vishnu to Poseidon, and it could even be Einstein’s conception of God, which was not a divine being but rather a metaphor for physics.
I confess I haven’t seen it in nearly 20 years. I would agree that it’s not overtly Christian. Unless I’m mistaken, the viewer won’t come away with the story of Jesus as they would with something like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It’s more an allegory that there is more to our world than mundane existence, an invitation to explore the nature of existence. It, in and of itself, does not point exclusively to the Christian Gospel, but it points to an exploration faith and spirituality. I guess you could say that the film is very spiritual, but not terribly religious.
As for the “God whose name I do not know”, well that echoes (intentionally or not) Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in Athens when he used the Greeks’ idol “To an unknown God” as a starting point for his Christian message.
In any case, well written review, Justin.
This is my favorite thing you’ve written. Beautifully said. Bought this a few months ago and haven’t gotten around to watching it (although I have seen it several times before). But after reading this and getting dumped this week I think it’s time. It’s an amazing movie. Thanks Justin.
Thank you! I was just trying to do justice to a personal favorite of mine.
It’s not just the visuals that arrested my attention at the start of the movie but the total audio/visual package. All those feet trudging along in time to “Sixteen Tons” and what’s still one of my favorite lyrical refrains in all of songdom (in that it just gives me chills):
“You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go;
I owe my soul to the company store.”
The best part is it doesn’t slack off from there. It’s a movie that’s fully utilizing every aspect of its medium to tell its story, and those are rarities to be cherished in cinema.
A lovely review of perhaps my favorite film of all time. Your story of the friend who uses “Joe” as a yardstick for kindred spirits especially rings true. I developed pretty much an identical theory of my own, and it had a surprising result.
I was a Californian who had volunteered to work for the Obama campaign in Colorado the few days leading up to the election in 2008. On election day, I met a charming boy. We flirted between election tasks and decided to hang out after the results came in. The chemistry was tangible, but at that point, I wasn’t sure if this was a fleeting encounter or something truly promising.
We stopped by his place on the way to the election party. And while he was in the bathroom, I began perusing his DVDs and videos. I consider myself a movie buff, so the collections of others are always an important measure of how much we have in common. There were promising similarities and intriguing differences. But when he emerged from the bathroom, I told him flatly, “Of course, you’re missing the one movie that would prove we’re soul mates.” A glimmer came to his eye as he asked me, “What movie?” I had barely finished speaking the words, “Joe vs. the Volcano” when his whole body took the stance of an little league outfielder, and his face looked like the he was about to catch the perfect fly. He replied, “Oh my God, I think I just fell in love with you. Stay there.”
He zipped out of the room. I could hear him tearing through the house, and desperate muffled cries of, “I have it. I promise I have it.” Well, he couldn’t find his copy that night, but the flurry of quotes that followed made his equal devotion to the movie clear. Needless to say, I was a goner.
It was a good yardstick. We’ve been together ever since (long-distance until this past February, when I was able to move to Colorado). And that thing I said about soul mates, well it couldn’t have been more true.
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