a critiQal film review Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)

Plot: Joe Banks (Hanks) is dying, thanks to a brain cloud.. This is good news, since his life was not much worth living anyway. On the upside, a strange millionaire (Bridges) offers Joe a way to die with meaning and dignity: by hurling himself into a volcano. With plenty of spending cash and an ensemble of new luggage, Joe embarks on an absurdist journey to his demise, guided by two very disparate sisters (Ryan), and trying to puzzle out the meaning of existence.

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  • ...this first entry in the Hanks/Ryan romantic comedy triad is the quirkiest - and hilariously spoofs the films to come.

When looking for something to watch, I definitely wanted to find something whimsical. With all the strife going on in the world today, it seemed like escapism was right up my alley. But what to watch? After perusing NetFlix® and Vudu®, I stumbled across Joe Versus the Volcano, which seemed exactly the type of film I was looking for. But, would this absurdist film be worth watching again (yes, I did see it years ago), or had time been unkind to this hidden gem?

Most viewers have heard about the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan team. After their success with Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, they seemed like the perfect on-screen romantic couple of the 90’s. But most viewers don’t realize they first appeared in Joe Versus the Volcano. And they show why they were such a good fit in those later movies with their performances in this one.

Tom Hanks may be super popular as an actor, but he usually seems to try too hard. Whether it’s for a dramatic role (Apollo 13 (1995)) or a comedy (Big), he’s usually trying so hard to convey his emotions it comes off feeling forced. In Joe Versus the Volcano, he seems to have toned that down a bit. The movie around him is absurd enough, and he mostly seems unsure how to take the goofyness. This actually works perfectly, since his character is facing huge life-changing events, and isn’t quite sure what to do about anything except just roll with it.

Meg Ryan is a good love interest for Hanks. While she gets a lot more serious in their later films together, she gets to be goofy in Joe Versus the Volcano, and seems to really be enjoying herself. She gets to take on three different characters in this film, and plays each one differently enough to distinguish themselves – even if all three look exactly like her. Her chemistry with Hanks is showcased well in this film, and its no wonder why the two of them were paired up for those later films. Their chemistry doesn’t feel forced at all, and in fact, feels a lot more natural than, say, the chemistry between Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart when they tried it in Twilight (2008).

The bit characters all get to have a little taste of the fun too in Joe Versus the Volcano. Robert Stack uses his gravitas to portray Joe’s doctor, Lloyd Bridges gets to play a crazy millionaire, Dan Hedaya is the bad boss at a horrible company, Ossie Davis plays a likeable limo driver, and Abe Vigoda shines as a deadpan tribal chief. Each of them, without very much screen time, each contribute a memorable scene or two to the film.

Joe Versus the Volcano never seems to take itself too seriously. In fact, right from the start, the film seems to be more of a spoof of those later romantic comedies than trying to be one itself. The main character is told he’s dying right from the start, which seems like it would be a bummer. But, with the whole “brain cloud” diagnosis, the viewer is already hesitant. After all, who has heard of such a thing? But they go with it, and are treated to Joe’s quirky travel adventure. There’s fun in the absurdity though, and viewers will be happy they are along for the ride.

If you’re looking for a sappy romantic comedy tearjerker like Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail, than Joe Versus the Volcano is not for you. If you think those movies take themselves a bit too seriously, however, and would rather see the Hanks/Ryan team in a quirky absurdist comedy, this one is right up your alley.

For something quirky and silly from the Hanks/Ryan duo, Joe Versus the Volcano is just what the doctor ordered.

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