Sunday, January 31, 2010

Me versus a film, part rom-com, part oddball

Joe (Hanks) and Patricia (Ryan) try to figure out the film so they can explain it to me. No luck.

Tracy and Hepburn. Bogart and Bacall. Olivier and Leigh. Burton and Taylor. Just to name a few of the greatest Hollywood on-screen (and off-screen) couples of all-time.

But being a nineties kid who religiously watched Saturday night movies on television, I have an incredible soft spot for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. They have great chemistry together. Along with their million dollar smiles and plain and simple cute-as-a-button mentality, with plenty of thanks to writer and director Nora Ephron, Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail skyrocketed into modern romantic comedy prominence.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), many people have not witnessed Hanks and Ryan's first cinematic collaboration in 1990's Joe Versus the Volcano. It is as accessible as an obscure foreign film, with the exception that it's in English and it's explosively wacky.

Hanks stars as Joe Banks, a hypochondriac who has a miserable office job, full of dim lights and seemingly unsanitary conditions. When he finds out that he has a "brain cloud" and is going to die in six months, he quits his miserable office job and goes on a date with the office secretary (Ryan). When the secretary finds out Joe's going to die in sixth months, she freaks out and leaves him for the night.

Then this wealthy businessman, Graynamore (Lloyd Bridges), somehow heard through the grapevine that Joe is going to die in sixth months. Knowing Joe's courageous past as a firefighter and his current lonely existence, Graynamore gives Joe an offer: He'll let Joe live like a king for several weeks and in the end, Joe will have to jump into the volcano to protect this random island so he can complete some sort of business deal. Joe agrees. "Live like a king, die like a man" as they say.

Joe shops around Manhattan, buying tons of fancy stuff (wine in a violin case, expensive briefcases, umbrella, etc.) that he won't even use since he's going to die in a few weeks, anyway, so I don't really understand the logic to that. But good thing he did because they conveniently become crucial survival items much later in the film!

So Joe goes to Los Angeles (a rest stop before he goes sailing off to the island) and meets Graynamore's dependent, wannabe beatnik? daughter (also played by Ryan) who invests her time painting and writing poetry. Ryan is actually very funny in this particular role (I love the part where she reads her poem once, and then asks if she should read it again), though the plot begins to feel too episodic and weird at this point for me to fully care.

Later, Joe goes on the dock and finds out that he's going to sail to the island with Graynamore's other daughter, Patricia (also played by Ryan). She's the most normal, of course, and the one that Joe falls in love with. There is this awkward monologue Patricia says to Joe on the boat that doesn't really work for the film, though it does establish Patricia as some sort of relatively intelligent and independent young woman at odds with her father. Forced, but it serves its purpose.

Chaos ensues. A terrible storm hits, so Joe and Patricia have to spend days? weeks? floating on Joe's four gigantic briefcases. Joe and Patricia miraculously arrive on the island, only to get the royal treatment from an eager group of natives who are only too ecstatic to meet their hero. And did I mention the natives love orange soda?

Written and directed by John Patrick Shanely, who went on to adapt and direct his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Doubt for the screen (a much better, thought-out film in comparison), Joe Versus the Volcano is an extraordinarily strange experience. It's part romantic comedy, part fantasy, part camp, part oddball. The film treads between the lines of a wicked dark comedy and an awkward screwball comedy.

I never knew what the film was trying to say or do, I just knew what was going to happen in the very end. If it had taken the twisted, unpredictable devil's path and gone with a more unconventional ending, Joe Versus the Volcano would've had a chance to be more different than it already is and at the very least, a little more interesting.

Hanks and Ryan are a likable pair here. Oh, they haven't yet reached the ultraviolet cuteness of their later roles as conventional rom-com soul mates, but they sure know how to shine even in a deep, dark hole. Another likable aspect of the film is its upbeat, mood-setting soundtrack.

Joe Versus the Volcano is supposedly a cult film and I wish it all the potential midnight screenings in the future. If you happen to be in the Joe Versus the Volcano cult, the more power to ya. But it's not my cup of tea. My dad echoed my exact sentiments upon finishing the film: "I don't get it." I'll unapolegetically take the predictable, mainstream Ephron films instead, thank you very much. C


  1. I remember watching this many years ago because it had Hanks and Ryan in it only to realize I was better off having not seen it. It's amusing at times, but I found it really annoying. Like one of those "you had to have been there" jokes.

  2. @Univarn - I agree. Thank goodness not every "you had to have been there" joke is made into full-length movies.

  3. the only ryan-hanks film I've seen is you've got mail, and tbh after the shop around the corner it's just not that great. I really like both actors though,specially tom hanks :) xx

  4. @Anahita - I watched You've Got Mail way before I ever watched The Shop Around the Corner.

    I first watched YGM when I was 10 or 11 and I just loved it. I have a soft spot for movies I watched during that age. It was a point in my life where I discovered and fell in love with many films--most were romantic comedies that were on TV on Saturday nights. YGM happened to be one of them.

    While The Shop Around the Corner may be a fabulous film in its own way, YGM imprinted on me early on in life. I doubt I'd feel the same way about YGM if I watched it for the first time today. I'd probably excuse it as typical rom-com fluff.

    I love New York in YGM. The city looks gorgeous. I love the chemistry between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. And I love how it's basically a late-90s time capsule. Domination of Starbucks. AOL e-mail addresses. It's just, really, a fun film to catch on TV. And it grew on me, the more I watched it.

    Check out Sleepless in Seattle, also with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. My friend said she liked it much more than YGM. (I, personally, prefer YGM. Whatever floats your boat, though.)

    Tom Hanks is an excellent actor. He's the first actor I've ever cared for. After watching Forrest Gump, I thought Hanks was da bomb--all the way. He's versatile too. Comedy, drama--you name it. He truly is the modern-day James Stewart, perhaps with a hint of Jack Lemmon. That's a winning combination.

  5. I agree with what you say about this film. And I love how you write :)

  6. @Kid - Thanks. This really was a weird movie!