Among the many fantastic actors to have graced the silver screen since the ‘80s, it’s hard not to place Tom Hanks among the best of the best. Upon hearing his name, the film Forrest Gump immediately comes to mind. The 1994 American drama won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Hanks. He worked with Ron Howard on Apollo 13 and with Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan, both of which would come to be known as some of the most iconic movies of the ‘90s.
Moving into the 2000s, Cast Away enjoyed such great success that the sporting goods company Wilson actually started producing volleyballs with the “Wilson” face on them. Hanks then co-starred with Leonardo DiCaprio in the hit biographical crime drama Catch Me If You Can in 2002, and kept it rolling with a starring role in The Da Vinci Code in 2006.
More recently, Hanks received praise from critics for his performances in the 2013 film Captain Phillips and the 2016 film Sully. And, even after contracting COVID-19 in 2020, Hanks is still showing no signs of slowing down, starring in two films last year and reportedly planning to appear in more in the year 2021.
With such a long and still flourishing career, I’d like to take a look back towards the beginning of Tom Hanks’s career, before he was the Hollywood superstar we know him as today. One of my personal favorite Tom Hanks films is Joe Versus the Volcano, a film that wasn’t received particularly well by audiences or critics, but a film that I believe has aged like fine wine. This delightfully odd romantic comedy, which was released in 1990, has the power to make you laugh, cry, scratch your head, and celebrate, all within a span of 102 minutes. Let’s take a look at what made this movie so special.
Joe Versus the Volcano Background
Joe Versus the Volcano was written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who is most well known for his play Doubt: A Parable, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The film stars Tom Hanks as Joe, and Meg Ryan as DeDe, Angelica, and Patricia. Yes, Meg Ryan did play three different roles in the film.
After experiencing great success with his 1989 film Big, which established him as a major Hollywood talent, Tom Hanks starred in a series of box-office underperformers, one of which was Joe Versus the Volcano. The film has been the subject of some harsh criticism and still has pretty subpar scores on movie review websites.
The film currently has a score of 63% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer, which is based on a composite of 30 reviews. Metacritic gave the movie a weighted average score of 45 out of 100 weighted average, based on reviews from 18 critics. Joe Versus the Volcano also got a “C+” rating from AudienceScore, based on a survey of different audiences. Overall, the movie, which had a $25 million budget, has fallen pretty flat.
Despite what critics may say, I think Joe Versus the Volcano could eventually garner a cult following similar to Office Space or Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The film is quirky and strange, features some great acting, gut-bustingly hilarious at times, and beautifully romantic at other times. Let’s take a look at what this movie was all about before we go any further.
Joe Versus the Volcano Plot Summary
The film begins with one of my personal favorite opening scenes in any film. Joe (Tom Hanks) is seen marching towards a massive volcano-shaped factory. Everything in the scene is grey, as Joe moves among a sea of grey-clad suits walking lifelessly to another day at work. Signs along the fences indicate that the products being produced in the factory are rectal probes and petroleum jelly. All the while Eric Burdon sings a version of Merle Travis’s Sixteen Tons in the background, saying:
You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.
The whole scene is wonderfully dreary, and perfectly embodies how almost everyone has felt walking into their dayjob at one point or another.
At the start of the film, Joe walks through life as a near-zombie in a soul-sucking office under fluorescent light bulbs, getting verbally accosted by his boss Mr. Waturi. He feels he’s wasting away from ennui and lack of purpose, and so he feels perpetually ill. Eventually, he decides to visit a doctor named Dr. Ellison, who diagnoses him with a mysterious incurable disease called a “brain cloud” and tells him that he has only about six months to live.
After hearing the news, Joe walks into his job the next day, tells off Mr. Waturi, and spontaneously asks his coworker DeDe (the first iteration of Meg Ryan) on a date. Then, the next day after their date, a man named Samuel Graynamore arrives at Joe’s house and makes him a proposition. Graynamore says that he heard about Joe’s terminal condition from Dr. Ellison, and that he would pay for all of Joe’s most outlandish expenses for the rest of his life, granted that he hurl himself into a volcano within the next 20 days. Graynamore has struck up a deal with the people of Waponi Woo, an South Pacific island nation, that he should be allowed to mine on their island if they could find them a sacrifice to be sent into the volcano to appease their fire god.
After some consideration, Joe decides to accept the proposition and immediately goes out to prepare for his journey. In another one of my favorite scenes of the movie, Joe speaks with an overly-intense luggage salesman who stresses the paramount importance of good luggage. While this salesman seems absolutely ridiculous at the time, the luggage that he sells to Joe (which is presented to him amidst heavenly light and angelic choruses) will eventually save Joe’s life not once, but twice.
Joe then travels to Los Angeles to meet with one of Graynamore’s daughters named Angelica (the second iteration of Meg Ryan), an emotionally unstable self-proclaimed “flibbertigibbet” (a Middle English word used to describe a flighty or whimsical young woman). The next morning, Angelica takes Joe to meet her sister Patricia (the third and final iteration of Meg Ryan) at their father’s yacht, which the two of them will use to sail to Waponi Woo.
As the journey at sea progresses, Joe and Patriciab begin to bond, and eventually kiss each other in the midst of a massive storm that completely destroys the yacht. The two of them are able to survive only because Joe lashes together his luggage and creates a float. Patricia remains unconscious the entire time they’re floating, and Joe feeds her water in between maniacal dancing fits. Eventually, when things look just about hopeless, the two of them wash up on the island of Waponi Woo.
On the island, they’re happily greeted by the Waponis, a tribe of South Pacific islanders of Celtic, Polynesian, Latin, and Hebrew influence. The entire Waponi tribe is completely infatuated with orange soda, a detail which seems to serve no purpose in the story other than to amuse the viewer. Joe is subjected to a bunch of strange ceremonies before he is led to the top of the volcano, where he is expected to jump to his death.
However, Patricia begs Joe not to jump into the volcano and declares her love for him. Joe says he also loves Patricia, “but the timing stinks.” Patricia volunteers to jump into the volcano with Joe, and after the two are married by the chief of the Waponi tribe, they hold hands and leap into the mouth of the volcano.
In an unexpected turn of events, the volcano spits the two of them out of its mouth and far into the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Joe fears that the two of them will drown before they’re able to reach shore. But, just then, what comes washing up to them in the tides? The luggage, of course.
The two of them once again safe, they begin to discuss Joe’s “brain cloud” and the mysterious circumstances behind his diagnosis. Patricia finally puts it together that her father, Samuel Graynamore, hired Dr. Ellison to tell Joe that he had this terminal condition so that he could be convinced to jump into the volcano. Realizing that Joe isn’t actually terminally ill, the couple realizes that they can spend the rest of their lives together in happiness and love.
Why I Love This Movie
I can almost understand why Joe Versus the Volcano got less-than-stellar reviews. It doesn’t really fit into a genre. Many parts of it don’t make much sense at all. At times, a lot of the acting seems overdone or even slapstick. However, in my opinion, these are the elements that make this movie so enjoyable. It’s like watching a Homer-esque love story through a funhouse mirror. It’s trippy, it’s wacky, and it’s ultimately heart-warming and profound.
Joe Versus the Volcano makes you question how you’re living your own life. Are you really making the most of every day? Or are you living your life like it’ll go on forever, wasting day after day doing things you hate and hoping that things will get better eventually?
Maybe that extra push we all need to start living our lives to the fullest is to come face-to-face with our own mortalities, to be reminded that our time in this life is definite and our last day may come sooner than we think. This movie is a wake-up call telling us that in order to love and enjoy life, we need to let go of our inhibitions and allow ourselves to be tossed in the tumbling tides of this random existence.