It took five seconds on Wikipedia to find out that Joe vs. The Volcano, one of my all time favorite movies, is labeled an existentialist comedy. I didn’t know such a thing existed. So, my next inquiry to the great brain in the cloud was a definition of existentialism – just to make sure I actually knew what it meant – which brought me to the doorstep of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.
I still don’t get it.
But that’s not the point. The point is, 99% of the world’s population would rather get a flu shot than subject themselves to this crumb of cinematic genius that I hold above most else.
How can you not love this movie? It’s the brilliance of Tom Hanks playing opposite Meg Ryan’s three wonderful rolls: De De, the mousy receptionist; Angelica Graynamore, the self-professed flibbertigibbet; and Patricia Graynamore, the fiercely independent love interest.
So, Joe Banks, an ex-fireman with PTSD is told he’s got a “Brain Cloud” that is painless but fatal. He’s sent on an adventure to the island of Waponi Wu to find a precious element called Bubaru (I’m not making this up) so that Lloyd Bridges’ wonderfully played Samuel Harvey Graynamore can make super conductors.
During his journey, Joe throws off the yoke of his horrible 9 to 5, samples the elixir of life for the very first time and finds himself in love with Meg Ryan’s third character as he prepares to throw himself into The Big Wu, a fiery volcano that demands a human sacrifice once every century.
The first 15 minutes…
Now let’s back up a bit because, to be honest, my favorite part of this movie is the first 15 minutes. As the film opens, we find a downtrodden Joe in Staten Island, toiling thanklessly at a fine purveyor of prosthetic limbs and various sundry body bits. The ugly, fluorescent lights cast a pallid glow on Joe and his co-workers as he stirs lumps of non-dairy creamer into his cold coffee and quickly retreats to a concrete office. A few minutes of relative peace give way to a tirade of castigation from Joe’s miserable boss, Mr. Waturi (Dan Hedaya), who proclaims – wholly without irony – “Of course you don’t feel good. No one feels good. After childhood it’s just a fact of life!”
I love this sequence for the same reason I love Office Space (1999). It paints the most delightfully depressing view of the kind of dog-eat-dog grind from which most people flee with the intense purpose you see in a Rwandan tribe hiding from the Hutu militia.
What ultimately delivers Joe from the evil clutches of fiscal reality, of course, is the spiritual release of imminent death, a tip of the hat to the gather-ye-rosebuds lifestyle we should probably all be leading but aren’t.
Thus ensues an adventure that takes him shopping in New York City, dining in LA and sailing toward his destiny on board the SS Tweedle Dum. One well placed bolt of lighting later, and Joe is floating with an unconscious Patricia on a set of steamer trunks. The sun beats, the water runs out and the steamer trunks deliver a delirious Joe to … wait for it … Waponi Wu.
Waponi Wu is of course inhabited with a tribe of locals who have a peculiar love of orange soda and are led by my favorite character, the chief of the Waponis played by Abe Vigoda. Oh, he’s just fucking awesome. No one deadpans better than a man who literally looks dead.
Anyway, this movie has never won and will never win any awards. And that’s a shame. Yes, it’s a bit weird. And no, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan do not like to talk about it at dinner parties. But c’mon, its just plain wonderful. The silliness of this movie’s presentation belies the simple beauty of its message. Not to mention the deftness with which director John Patrick Shanley (who also directed Doubt ) weaves a lovely tale of a life destined for squander, that finds its way back onto the tracks and into the arms of true love.