Once upon a time there was a guy named Joe who had a very lousy job…
For a time Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan were considered America's sweethearts. Of course, Meg Ryan was already America's sweetheart for her portrayal of cutesy characters in such romantic movies as When Harry Met Sally and Innerspace. In 1989, Tom Hanks was still known as a "funny guy" because of movies like Turner and Hooch, The 'Burbs, and Bachelor Party. But it all came together with the Steven Spielberg produced the offbeat/adventure love story Joe vs. The Volcano. Written and directed by Moonstruck scribe John Patrick Shanley, the film failed to become the smash hit that Warner was hoping for. However, what box office dollars the film lost were made up for in critical praise about the film's originality, humor, and romance. Joe vs. The Volcano also led Hanks and Ryan to pair up twice more in the mega-hit Sleepless In Seattle and the email heavy You've Got Mail. Also starring Abe Vigoda (Barney Miller), Dan Hedaya (The Addams Family), Robert Stack (Airplane!), and Lloyd Bridges (Hot Shots), Joe vs. The Volcano erupts all over your DVD player care of Warner Home Entertainment.
Facts of the Case
Joe (Hanks) spends his dreary days working at a dead-end job at American Panascope, home of the "rectal probe." A thrilling existence this is not. His office is lit with same luminescence you might find at a morgue. His co-workers, including the ditzy DeeDee (Ryan) appear to be as miserable as Joe is. His boss (Hedaya) is a brutish oaf who barks orders and commands with little care for his employee's dignity. And on top of everything else, Joe thinks he's sick with everything under the sun. After going to multitudes of doctors Joe finally finds out from Dr. Ellison (Stack) what he has been fearing all along: he's got an incurable disease called a "brain cloud." With only months to live, Joe quits his job and prepares for the end…until wacky millionaire Mr. Graynamore (Bridges) comes knocking on Joe's door. Graynamore has a proposition for Joe: take a batch of credit cards, buy whatever he wants, sail across the ocean to an isolated island, and die like a man by thrusting himself into a live volcano to save the Waponi tribe (led by the funny Abe Vigoda). With nothing to lose, Joe takes Graynamore up on his offer and is picked up for the trip by the abrasive Angelica (Ryan once more) to help get Joe ready for his adventure. After being dropped off on a sailboat headed by Graynamore's daughter Patricia (Ryan again!), Joe finds himself on his way to his destiny…and possibly love!
I was pretty stoked to watch Joe vs. The Volcano after all these years. I vaguely recall seeing the film in theaters when I was about thirteen and I remember loving every minute of it. My how times change…
Let me start by saying that Joe vs. The Volcano is a very original movie. It's strange, humorous, and whimsical. It's a movie that dares to take the audience to somewhere different and weird—it's kind of like a Tim Burton movie without all the dark undertones. John Patrick Shanley has written a story with some very good dialogue and forethought. If the movie has one single great quality, it's that the actors in the film and their respective conversations are fresh and witty. It feels as if the dialogue was almost written exclusively for Hanks and Ryan. I can't stress how much I really liked the banter in this film.
Alas, the rest of the movie doesn't hold up quite as well. After pondering this for many hours (which included scratching my feet with a fork and eating a bag of gummi worms), I still couldn't come up with a reason why the film didn't gel. There's just…something missing, yet I just can't seem to put my finger on what it is. Maybe the film lacks a real ending. I won't give away what happens to Joe here, but I think that has to do with my somewhat neutral feelings about the movie.
There are moments of sheer delight here, and the set design by Bo Welch (Batman Returns) is great, especially in the opening scenes at Joe's dismal office. But the film seems to lack a certain spark that makes for a great cinematic treat. Maybe Joe vs. The Volcano tries too hard to balance whimsy, romance, and adventure. All of these elements are here, but they just don't come together well. Certainly the performers do a wonderful job with their roles—Meg Ryan is cute as a button in three roles, her best being Joe's ditzy co-worker who seems to be missing a few cards in her deck. I will always think that Tom Hanks was one of the best comedic actors of his time. I say "was" because Hanks now seems to only work in dramatic fare like Saving Private Ryan and Philadelphia. I long for the days when Hanks really knew how to pull the giggles out of a viewer with pitch perfect delivery. The movie also received high merit for including Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, and the ever amusing Abe Vigoda as supporting players.
Joe vs. The Volcano is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Warner has done a decent job at making this film look rich and textured, save for some softness in the image in a few key scenes. Overall, the color patterns are bright and the black levels deep and solid. I did spot a small amount of edge enhancement in a few scenes, though it wasn't ever intrusive to the viewing of the film.
The audio is presented in a newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtrack in English, as well as Dolby Stereo in French and Japanese. This is a fairly good remix for a film of this age—there are a few well placed directional effects in the front and rear speakers while the bass was used well during some of the more bombastic scenes. While this mix certainly warranted a much more aggressive mix, Warner has still come through with a better-than-average soundtrack for a film of this magnitude. Also included on this disc are subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese.
Joe vs. The Volcano falls somewhere between a slight special edition and a bare bones disc. The extra features are better than the usual Warner standard DVDs, but not likely to satisfy fans of the film. Included on this disc is a very short behind-the-scenes featurette that is as typical promotional material as you're apt to come across. There are some fluffy interviews with Hanks, Ryan, and director Shanley talking about bland aspects of the film, some behind-the-scenes footage, and a few clips from the film. Sadly, this monosyllabically narrated featurette adds nothing to one's insight of the film.
Also included on this disc is a music video for the steel working song Sixteen Tons by Eric Burdon, a list of the cast and crew, and a theatrical trailer for the film presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Needless to say, I had mixed feelings about this movie. Joe vs. The Volcano may not be a complete success, but at least it scores some points for originality. It's always fun to watch Hanks and Ryan together, so the movie isn't a complete loss. It's worth seeing just for the off-beat story and, of course, the late, great Lloyd Bridges. Warner's work on this disc is good, but not great. I do think it's a worthwhile rental for those looking for a little romance on a Saturday night date.
This movie got a hung jury! Case dismissed!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Behind-The-Scenes Documentary
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