Friday, April 17, 2009

Vastly Underrated: Joe Versus the Volcano

I love me a sad ending.

I prefer harsh realism to ordinary fairy tale.

Still, years and years after first seeing the oddly mystical fable Joe Versus the Volcano, I cannot come up with one (major) thing to dislike about it.

And yet ... the masses and critics alike can't figure out what to do with this 1990 film from writer-director (and noted playwright) John Patrick Shanley.

Joe Banks (Tom Hanks, in his finest performance that doesn't involve a volleyball) is a peon at a petroleum manufacturing company (!). Moreover, he's a helpless hypochondriac ... until he's told he's about to die from a mysterious disease called a "brain cloud." Suddenly a strange man (Lloyd Bridges, as Lloyd Bridges as ever) proposes that the terminal Joe offer himself as a sacrifice by jumping into a Pacific island volcano (double !).

Along the way he runs into three versions of Meg Ryan (she's great playing all three), and starts to discover things about himself, about life, and about getting the most out of living it.

It's a strange film with a strange plot and copious pre-Indie-craze quirks -- except within the context of a quasi-fantasy like this, all those idiosyncrasies are endearing, not tiresome. Maybe Joe v. Volcano would play better these days than it did in 1990. Maybe not.

Maybe the film's just too individualistic for wide audiences to handle. Maybe its strange brand of idealism -- one in which Happily Ever After doesn't exist, but moments of happiness do -- is too complex to digest in a 90-minute block.

Or maybe it's just a matter of taste. I honestly have no clue. Sure, even some of the greatest films aren't universally liked. But it's not as if critics and audiences always hate fairy tales.

So instead of continuing my attempt to solve this puzzle, I'll just re-watch one of Joe's many great sequences:

Slightly NSFW

P.S. The soundtrack is perfect.

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