Saturday, August 6, 2016

Joe Versus the Volcano

I don't normally do movie reviews on this blog.  I figure there are plenty of web sites that do those.  Up until now, I've only done one review, of sorts, of a Darren Aronofsky movie called The Fountain, and I only did that one because I was struck by its surrealism and inscrutability.  I found The Fountain in a bargain bin at my local grocery store.  I had never seen it, nor really even heard of it when I purchased it.  The cover just piqued my interest.

Unlike The Fountain, I did not get the movie Joe Versus the Volcano out of a bargain bin, although it might well be found in one of those.  No, I actively sought it out, having seen it on TV and having been completely won over by it.  Joe Versus the Volcano was released in 1990 and directed by John Patrick Shanley, of Moonstruck fame.  It stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, who plays three different roles, but it is probably not one of either actors' more memorable movies, as it did not do well at the box office when it was released.

Joe Versus the Volcano is a modern fable about a guy named Joe Banks (played by Tom Hanks).  Joe is an ex-firefighter who somehow wound up in a dead-end job managing the catalog department (a single room full of mostly empty shelves) for a medical supply company from Hell.  Like the buildings that he formerly helped to extinguish, the fire has gone out of Joe.  He hates his job and his life in general.  He is a hopeless hypochondriac who`s afraid of everyone and everything.  The emptiness of his life would make a vacant 747 hangar seem like a subway car at rush hour in comparison.  Early in the movie, the office secretary, DeDe (the first of Meg Ryan`s three personas) notices Joe examining his shoe and asks him what the problem is.  Joe responds, "I think I'm losing my sole".  The movie is full of double-entendre dialog of that sort.

One of the things that amuses me about this movie is that there is a lot of seemingly irrelevant stuff happening in the background which is often a subtle message or commentary on modern life if you're paying attention.  As an example, when Joe first enters the office in which he works, his boss is engaged in a phone conversation in the background.  Although the camera focuses on Joe and what he is doing (which involves pouring himself a particularly unappealing cup of coffee under a continuously buzzing fluorescent light), the boss's conversation is loud enough to be overhead, and goes like this:

"Harry..." (pause)
"Yeah Harry, but can he do the job?" (sigh)
"I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?" (pause)
"I'm not arguing that with you." (pause)
"I'm not arguing that with you." (pause)
"I'm not arguing that with you!" (pause)
"I'm not arguing that with you, Harry!" (pause)
"Harry... Harry..." (pause)
"Yeah, Harry, but can he do the job?  I know he can get the job.  But can he do the job?" (pause)
"I'm not arguing that with you." (pause)
"Harry, I am not arguing that with you!" (pause)
"Who said that?" (pause)
"I didn't say that!" (pause)
"If I said that, I would have been wrong." (pause)
"Maybe." (pause)
"Maybe.: (pause)
"I'm not arguing that with you!" (pause)
"Yeah Harry, I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?"

How many times, especially in working environments, do we hear circular conversations of this type?  One can't help but wonder what Joe's boss thinks that he's accomplishing.  To me, it's a wink at the sheer pointlessness that so many engage in and endure while doing what's supposed to be their life's work.

Later on, Joe visits his doctor (played by Robert Stack) to find the result of some medical tests that were run after Joe complained of feeling "blotchy" and the doctor informs him that he has a rare condition known as a "brain cloud"; a black fog of tissue that runs down the center of his brain.  It's spreading, it's incurable and it's terminal.  Joe has about six months of life left to him and can expect to experience no pain or, indeed, any other symptoms, until right at the end.  Cue another beautiful exchange of dialog:

Joe: What are you talking about, doctor, I don't feel good right now!

Dr. Ellison: That's the ironic part, Mr. Banks.  You're a hypochondriac.  There's nothing wrong that has anything to do with your symptoms...

Joe: I'm not sick except for this terminal disease?

Dr. Ellison: Which has no symptoms.  That's right.

Doc Ellison goes on to explain that it was only because of Joe's insistence on having so many tests done that he caught the problem at all.

Ironically, Joe finds his death sentence a liberating experience.  Having nothing left to lose, he finally gets up the courage to tell off his boss, quit his job and ask DeDe out for dinner.

Sometime later, Joe is sitting alone in his run-down little apartment strumming on a ukulele (hey, I couldn't think of a better way to live out my last six months) when there is a rap at the door.  The rapper turns out to be a cheery but eccentric old millionaire named Samuel Graynamore (played by Lloyd Bridges), who has a proposition for Joe.  He knows that Joe is dying and he needs someone who is willing to jump into the mouth of an active volcano in order to appease the volcano god and, more importantly, appease the natives who live near the volcano so that they will be amenable to supplying Mr. Graynamore with bubero, a rare mineral that's only found on their island and that his company needs for making superconductors.

So here's the deal.  If Joe, who is dying anyway, is willing leap into the mouth of the volcano in order to appease both the volcano god and the natives, Graynamore will arrange his passage to the exotic south sea island on which the volcano is located as well as supply him with enough money to live out his last days like a king before dying like a hero.  After a surprisingly brief consideration, Joe agrees to do it.

Thus begins the strangest (and likely last) adventure of Joe's life, during the course of which he will befriend a fatherly limousine driver, purchase four high-end steamer trunks that appear more luxurious than some trailers that I've seen from a luggage salesman who lives for his work, and meet Graynamore's two daughters (both played by Meg Ryan), Angelica and Patricia who, in spite of being semi-related (they're only half-sisters) couldn't be any more opposite.  The movie, of course, culminates on the island of Waponi Woo, home of the dreaded volcano into which Joe has promised to jump.

One of the things that I like about this movie is its penchant for understatement and subtlety.  There are all sorts of recurring themes and foreshadowing for the observant viewer.  Near the beginning of the movie, long before any talk of volcanoes, Joe kills the fluorescent lights over his desk and sets a small musical lamp in their place.  The lamp's stand is a native dancing girl, and the lamp's shade depicts what appears to be a volcano on an exotic island.

Later, after Joe and DeDe leave the restaurant where they had dinner, we see a nearby poster depicting another south sea island with a volcano with the words "Fire in Paradise".

One of the first things that we see when the movie starts is a grimy sign featuring the logo of the company for which Joe works.

It is, perhaps, not entirely surprising that the path leading from the front gate to the factory entrance looks like this (although I do find it amusing that everyone obediently follows it and nobody seems to think to just cut straight across the rocks).

It's somewhat more surprising that the crack in the right wall of Joe's seedy apartment happens to resemble the same design.

And then there's the lightning bolt that hits that yacht on which Joe is sailing to the island of Waponi Woo.

And, finally, there is the procession of torches, carried by the islanders, as they take Joe to the mouth of the volcano.

What do I read into this?  For me, the cracked pyramid/lightning bolt symbol represents the forces in Joe's life that try to drag him down.  It symbolizes his fear and insecurity and it's not easily left behind.  It keeps recurring everywhere, right up until the end, and Joe has to keep overcoming it.

For me, the climax, and the central message behind this movie, come during the scene when Joe is adrift in the south seas on the steamer trunks that he bought, which he has fashioned into a sort of raft after the yacht that was taking him to the island sank in the storm.  Sun-baked and dehydrated, he is awakened at night by surprisingly bright moonlight, thrown by an enormous full moon as it ascends over the horizon.  Joe staggers to his feet, blinks at the awesome orb, then falls back to his knees and whispers "Dear God, whose name I do not know, Thank you for my life.  I forgot ... how big..."  I don't mind admitting that scene chokes me up every time I see it.

Joe Versus the Volcano is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated movies in recent history.  Unlike so many formulaic movies nowadays, it is completely original.  Its comedic moments evoke laughs and chuckles, but it has enough depth to make the viewer re-examine his or her own life and priorities.  In short, it is Halmanator Approved, and I can't think of a better testimonial than that.

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