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Joe Versus the Volcano (Blu-ray Review)

17 Jul, 2017 By: Mike Clark



Available via Warner Archive
Warner
Comedy
$21.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG’
Stars Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Ossie Davis.

Despite a loopy affability that occasionally comes off as strained though rarely to deal-breaking extremes, Joe Versus the Volcano is one of the more dramatic examples of how casting dynamics can motivate an audience toward one movie but not to another. Mention Tom Hanks with Meg Ryan, and most minds will gravitate toward Sleepless in Seattle or even You’ve Got Mail — both of which would have had my mother in theaters before she or anyone could say the name of the actor who shows up late in Joe decked out in tribal garb and makeup right out of some Crosby-Hope Road picture. This would be the (finally) late Abe Vigoda, whose mention here gets ahead of the additionally wacky lead-ins served up by a romantic comedy-fable-romance that further manages to showcase, at least on the soundtrack, the Del-Vikings (more on this later). The real point is that of the three Hanks-Ryan combos, Joe came first, and its weirdness generated so many naysayers at the time that the success of any future pairings couldn’t necessarily have been predicted.

Of course, the team’s chemistry was already there for all to see for anyone with objective eyes; in fact, Ryan plays three roles (she’s good in all of them, too), and an impossibly young-looking Hanks harmoniously plays off all of them without any more sweat than his character breaks into when he nonchalantly ponders what looks to be his imminent fate. So, if I as a unlikely studio chief would have been skittish about green-lighting Joe even given writer-director John Patrick Shanley's then-recent Oscar for scripting Moonstruck, I’m glad the picture got made (and, in fact, it took in marginally more at the box office than I remembered, assuming IMDb.com is right). Sporting a mild smile for 100 minutes, which I recently did re-watching the picture on Blu-ray, will do that for you — and by the way, whoever said that Moonstruck itself wasn’t loopy?

The opening and arguably overextended scenes show Hanks slaving away in the bowels of a Metropolis-like medical supply company that bills itself as “home of the rectal probe” (I can just see Alex Trebek doing the TV commercials). Located in something close to a mud-hole, its fluorescent overhead lighting emits enough glare to have driven even Ted Williams blind and makes Jonathan Pryce’s drab work digs in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil look like one of the flesh-filled office rec rooms in The Wolf of Wall Street. Already a hypochondriac and all too aware of his seedy environment’s effect on his or anyone’s well-being, Joe/Hanks thus finds it easy to accept a doctor’s diagnosis of a mysterious “brain cloud” that will kill him in six months. It’s at this point that, out of the blue, a Trump-like businessman shows up at his door offering the benefits of unlimited credit cards, ship’s passage, great food and (for short while) spa-like pampering by the natives once he reaches the target South Pacific island. At this point, Joe has to fulfill his end of the bargain by leaping into a volcano as a human sacrifice, Bird of Paradise style. And, uh, the reason for this? Well, it’s too complicated to explain but is due to one of the magnate’s financial deals and not because he has any gnawing need to bankroll on-the-house bottomless poi for friendly acquaintances.   

Ryan’s three roles are as an office secretary that sad-sack Joe can’t quite pull the trigger with when it comes to pursuing sex, and a pair of half-sisters, one artsy and mildly flighty, the other better adjusted; the latter accompanies Joe on his voyage. Both are daughters of Joe’s wealthy benefactor, and the second sis’s more soothing life view may have something to do with the probable reality that she’s daddy’s favorite who, in any event, is getting the yacht as his gift. Which is fine until a typhoon sinks the craft and leaves both principals to survive on watertight steamer trunks that can easily serve as an impromptu raft. The crew, meanwhile, has gone down with the ship — a plot necessity that’s dispensed about as unsentimentally as its saddling of Amanda Plummer with a microscopic role as one of its members.

The storm scene is the real deal, reportedly shot in the same monstrous tank that Esther Williams used for her grandiose MGM production numbers and was presumably off-limits to all contract player skinny-dipping involving Wallace Beery and Marjorie Main, Wallace Beery and Lassie, or Wallace Beery and anybody. Joe had a fairly large budget for its day for the kind of picture it was, and it didn’t all go to the cast because even its name supporting actors (Lloyd Bridges as the magnate, Robert Stack as the doctor, Ossie Davis as a chauffeur) were limited to a single scene or barely more. So assuming that Abe Vigoda didn’t pull down $12 million (a steal), one has to guess that much of Amblin’s cash was spent on the look of the film: impressive work by cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt and production designer Bo Welch. Case in point is the visual perfection of the nighttime street scene when Hanks and Ryan I come out of a restaurant before Joe embarks on his odyssey.   

A lot of Joe’s second half is devoted to Hanks and Ryan III falling in love as much as we want them to, and once they get to the island, there’s a feeling I have (dunno if Shanley had it as well) that the story has been painted into the corner — due, predictably, to that fact that our now uninhibited hero is either going to take the leap or he isn’t without some kind of major plotting contrivance. Then again, the movie is so agreeably loose and freewheeling (which is also its limitation) that one more contrivance is just rolling with the riff. The one bit that continues to surprise me – and the single indelible moment that always stayed with me in the decades between viewings — comes when ocean-stranded Hanks stands up on the steamer trunk and bops out solo to the Del-Vikings’ all-timer of “Come Go With Me,” which Dot Records issued as kind of its Pat Boone alternative in the spring of 1957.

Beyond providing one of the great feel-good movie scenes of the 1990s, the bit makes a certain kind of sense for a protagonist who’s probably delirious, stranded without much drinking water and faced with the capper reality that even if he somehow survives, he’s obligated to switch from Big Drink to Big Lava. In this context, a killer throwaway that needs no justification beyond itself; as the men said, “Dom-de-doo-be-dom.”


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